Day 1: Rome was our first stop. We arrived at the Rome Fiumicino Airport at 10 am on a direct American Airlines flight from Chicago. The easiest way to get from the airport to the city center is by taxi but the cheapest way is by train. Cheap is a relative term as we soon learnt in Rome. The train ride from the airport to the city station (Roma Termini) cost 11 Euros.
Before you head to the city be sure to pick up the Roma pass at the tourist center in the International terminal. The 21 Euro pass gives you free access to two museums, free unlimited travel on the subway or buses for 3 days and discounts on many other sights and events.
Hotels are expensive in Rome especially if you look for places in the historic center. One of the best options is to find a place slightly east of the Termini, they are not fancy but clean and functional bed and breakfasts. We stayed at Hotel Romae for 103 Euros a night on average. After checking in and taking an hour’s break we set out to catch our first sights of the city.
We headed straight to the Colosseum, Rome’s most recognizable building. We used the Roma pass and avoided the entry fee though we spent money on the guide. The Colosseum originally the Flavian Amphitheatre was started between 70 and 72 AD under the emperor Vespasian and was completed in 80 AD under Titus.During its prime there were two types of games held at the arena. In the morning the games were mainly man against beast while in the evenings the gladiators battled against each other. From the Colosseum we proceeded to Palatine Hill past the Arch of Constantine. On a pleasant day the walk up the hill is extremely easy and the views are worth it. The hill overlooks the Roman Forum and also the Circus Maximus on the other side. The forum was center of activity in ancient Rome. It was the main plaza and all cultural and political activities took place in and around the forum. Be sure to give yourself atleast 3 hours for Palatine hill and the forum as there is much to see.
We caught the subway back to the Termini and then switched to the Orange line to get to Barberini the stop for the Trevi fountain. It’s one of the most depicted sights of Rome in movies, especially the romantic ones and it certainly is impressive but be prepared to deal with the crowds.
We patiently and slowly moved to the front, made a wish, tossed our coin and then selfishly sat down for a while. We admired the art in the fountain and soaked in the atmosphere.
We then continued to walk further into historic Rome and reached the Pantheon which was originally built in 27 BC bu Marcus Agrippa, son-in-law of Augustus. It was rebuilt between 110 and 125 AD. Having caught the biggest sights in Rome on day 1 we headed back to the hotel, after eating our first Italian dinner.
Day 2: Basilicas Galore: We started the day early as we had planned to make a full circle of the historic areas of Rome. Our first stop was the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore believed to have been built after an apparition of the Virgin appeared in the middle of summer followed by a freak snowfall and thus is the largest church in Rome dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The campanile (bell tower of the church) is the tallest in Rome at 240 feet and was constructed in the fourteenth century. Since it was a Sunday we got to be part of the mass and seeing an ancient church as this one being used only added value. We then proceeded to our second basilica of the day, the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano.
This is the cathedral of the Church of Rome and the official ecclesiastical seat of the Bishop of Rome, who is the Pope and thus ranks above all other churches in the Roman Catholic Church, even above St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
The area surrounding the basilica is great for walking and the inside the church contains great christian relics along with the portrait of Jesus above the altar supposedly painted by St.Luke and an angel.
Our aim was to head to the catacombs but we got derailed by a broken bus and thus had to reshuffle our already packed day. We got lunch at a local pasta joint and proceeded to the Pyramid of Cestius, one of the most ancient and well preserved buildings in Rome. Unfortunately there isn’t much to see so if you time it right you can in 6 minutes get a glimpse of the pyramid and catch the next train out. We continued to our third basilica of the day, Basilica of St.Paul Outside the Walls. This was one of the most stunning basilicas we had seen, and the second largest after St.Peter’s. The complex itself is huge and the interiors are stunning. The church was almost completely destroyed in the 19th century and was rebuilt. We can only wonder how much more beautiful it was before modern hands touched it. Take the subway back to the Circus Maximus stop, an ancient hippodrome and mass entertainment venue located in Rome. Today it is nothing more than a field and has no tangible value other than the knowldege that great and fun things happened here.
The rest of the day was on foot, starting with the Capitoline Hill home to Medieval and Renaissance palaces (now housing the Capitoline Museums) that surround a piazza, a significant urban plan designed by Michelangelo. We exhausted our second free museum option on the Roma Pass and in return got to see works by Pietro Berrettini, Caravaggio along with a stunning Equestrian monument of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Our day weared on, and tired of the all of the walking we decided we needed to rejuvenate with the best coffee in Rome at Cafe Eustachio. Located a few blocks from Piazza Navona it serves some of the most delicious coffees in town. It is always cheaper to drink coffee at the counter in Rome as any seat on the street has an extra cover charge (coperto). Piazza Navona follows the plan of an ancient Roman circus, the 1st century Stadium of Domitian and this can be seen in its design. This is the hip piazza with lots of performers, artisans and entertainers and lots of young people. The plaza is crowned by the Fountain of the Rivers, famous for its scultpures and obelisk.
As dusk approached we rushed to the Piazza di Spagna to see the sky turn electric blue over the Spanish Steps or Scalinata and is the longest and widest staircase in Europe. This is the perfect spot to spend a quite evening though evening here is really night anywhere else, especially in early June. If you map the places we visited in day 2 you would notice that we had made our full circle and we ensured we traced our way back by taking the subway back to the Termini station. Another feature packed day awaited us so we got our dinner in Mama Angelo’s right outside our hotel.
Day 4: Tracing History in Pompeii. We had initially asked our hotel to book us on to the Mt Vesuvis tour, but that got cancelled in the last minute due to bad weather. However we decided to rough it out and make the day trip to Naples and Pompeii on our own. We got to the train station early and took the train to Naples. Look for the Inter City Plus trains as they are far more comfortable than the Regional trains. Make sure you book your return trip as early as possible because the trains get very full in the evening.
At Naples we took the Circumvesuviana train to Pompeii. This runs every half hour. The Pompeii Scavi station was very quaint and sweet. The ruins were just a 5 minute walk away from the station and we got a guide and took the 2 hour tour of the ruins. The guide service though not officaily managed has its own unique order and costs a standard 10 Euros per person. It was a wonderful experience to imagine life 2000 years ago as we walked through the ruins. The city is well preserved though it has seen more than its share of disasters. It was quite enlightening to see how well the city was planned, with aquaducts, street planning and sewage. Our only regret was that We had to make do with a glimpse of Mt Vesuvius in the distance. After a delicious panini lunch at the train station, we headed back to Naples. Since the rains showed no signs of stopping we didn’t get a chance to explore Naples as much as we would have liked.
We took a quick cab ride from the station to Piazza del Plebiscito, the main square in the city and then spent a couple of hours at the Royal Palace. We tried to catch as much of Naples as possible from the Galleria Umberto to asking the cab driver to drive past the coast and show us the boats. We headed back to Rome after a quick glimpse of this ancient city. A day well spent, except for the incessant rains.
Day 5: Inclination to see Pisa The next day, was also an early start and we checked out of our hotel at 5:30 am to make it to the 6:15 train to Florence. The Euro Star train journey from Roma, Termini to Florence was very comfortable and we got to Florence (Firenze) in about 2 hours. Our hotel, Caravaggio was a short 15 minute walk from the station in Piazza Independenza and after a good complimentary breakfast we headed into the historic city of Florence.
Our first stop was the Duomo, or Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. The cathedral complex includes the Baptistry and Giotto’s Campanile and are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site covering the Historic Centre of Florence and are a major attraction to tourists visiting the region of Tuscany. The paintings were beautiful and the colors of the stained glass were something we had never seen before, absolutely stunning. The depiction of the Last Judgement was amazing and was a masterpiece. Kart and I decided to climb the 400+ steps to get a view of Florence from the top of the Duomo. It was quite the climb but the view was breathtaking and was completely worth it. The climb also weaves its way inside the Duomo and you get a close-up though very scary view of the hell portions of the Last Judgement. The facade of the Duomo and the adjacent buildings are worth noting for the great marble and inlay work. We decided to finish our trip to Pisa and walked through the markets and narrow streets of Florence and made our way back to the station.
The train ride to Pisa was an hour and a half and this is a regional train, and then we took the Red line bus from the station to the Leaning Tower. The tower was so cute and definitely deserved the fuss surrounding it. Cute isn’t a word that you can associate with a tower but this one just was. From the entrance it was almost as if it was leaning out from behind the basilica, saying, “See me, See me.” Dharu, Ram and I took a combined tour of the tower and the cathedral while Kart also decided to see the baptistry and cemetery. We lazed on the grass. We got ripped off for our meal outside the Piazza dei Miracoli ’cause of a lofty cover charge of 2.5 Euro per person though we confirmed that there wasn’t any. Remember to ask if the resturants have “coperto” or cover charge. Train ride number 3 for the day got us back to Florence and we made it in time to see the sunset from the Ponte Vecchio bridge and the bridge next to it. We saw a lot of college kids bringing wine and plastic glasses to enjoy a true Tuscan sunset, and we decided to try this the next day. There was a soulful music performance at the bridge after sunset and then it was time to end our eventful day with a quick dinner. We got a flavour of the sights and sounds of Tuscany on our way to Pisa and we definitely want to return to the area.
Day 6: David! David! Florence is a great city. It is one of those cities so steeped in history and art that it makes almost all the other cities seem boring. Michelangelo, Galileo, Dante, Botticelli, Donatello, Florence Nightingale, Niccolò Machiavelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Gucci and Ferragamo were all from here. What are the odds of all these great minds coming from about a 40 square mile area.
Florence has some of the best museums in the world but to see them you need to make reservations well in advance. Try to atleast make them as soon as you arrive. Our first appointment was at the Galleria dell’Accademia, at 9 am. The crowds gather early at this museum and if you look closely you’d see more women than men and the reason is David. The masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture sculpted by Michelangelo from 1501 to 1504. The 17 feet marble statue portrays the Biblical King David in the nude. Unlike previous depictions of David which portray the hero after his victory over Goliath, Michelangelo, then only 26, chose to represent David before the fight contemplating the battle yet to come. This must be one of the most perfect sculptures ever, as we stared and stared for more reasons than one and could not find a single flaw. Every muscle, every body part, every expression, every almost twitching nerve was perfect. After almost 2 hours and having seen the other exhibits we decided to leave.
We walked to the Basilica di Santa Croce where half the people mentioned above are buried and thus is known as the Temple of the Italian Glories. We took our time to get to the main section walking around what is today the largest Franciscan church in the world. In the main section we saw Dante’s monument, though he is not buried here, and then Michelangelo’s and Galileo’s. Both of us paid tribute to the men, and standing between the two, the artist on one end and the scientist on the other, we only wished we could imbibe a little of each of their spirits. This is definite must see for anyone visiting Florence. For lunch we stopped at i Fratellini, a sidewalk panini shop. Simple food, simple lives. We then split up and while Karthik decided to explore in the afternoon heat the rest of us headed back to the hotel. Karthik spent his time visiting Dante’s house and at the Piazza della Signoria admiring the great art works.
We joined him after an hour, in time for our appointment at the Uffizi Gallery.
We saw Da vinci’s painting “Annunciation” with Andrea del Verrocchio, circa 1472–1475. The painting forces you to view it from a particular angle and this showed Leonardo’s understanding of perspective. We also saw more paintings by Boticelli, Raphael, Caravaggio and Michelangelo. An evening well spent. We headed out of the museum and found our way to Vivoli one of the best places for gelato. We ended the day back at the Ponte Vecchio bridge watching the sunset and at the Pitti Palace, sipping wine as the night ended.
Day 7: How do you make a Venetian Blind? Another early start to catch another early train. This time we took the Eurostar to Venice and having struggled to find a place in the island of Venezia we decided to stay at the Holiday Inn at Merghera on the mainland. We got off at the Mestre station. The hotel is off the highway and we had to take a cab. An easy way to get to the island from the mainland is the bus. There is a bus stop in Venice and as soon as we got off we noticed the Grand Canal. Venice is unique.
The narrow canals, the fancy gondolos, the cheaper motorized boats, the colorful buildings with their Venetian blinds, the mansions, palaces, shopping centers, bridges, basillicas and the piazza make it a perfect location for doing nothing. But doing nothing is not something Karthik can do so we followed him as he led us into the heart of Venice.
We took a gondola ride (80 Euro’s for 45 minutes) and then after another 20 minutes of walking we decided to slow down our pace and just laze by the canal. Ofcourse Karthik continued to explore. We headed to the Rialto bridge and shopping district and lazed again. Next we headed to the St.Mark’s Square and the basillica and lazed more.
After 7 days we deserved it and Venice is perfect for that. We did take the elevator to the top of the tower attached to the St.Mark’s Basilica and get grand panoramic views of Venice. The rest of the evening was spent feeding the pigeons at the square, a must do in Venice. We walked back to the bus station taking an alternate route, thanks to Mr. Mapman and returned to our hotel. Italy isn’t a rich country, quite obvious from the time you land, but frozen in the most glorious past it is one of the richest countries in the world. Rome hasn’t changed much, with the old quite happily coexisting with the new, Florence has nothing new and rightfully so, Venice is floating in water, Pompeii buried by fire, and Pisa just leaning and being content. It is definitely one of our most favorite places and now at the end of trip we can add another 7 sights to our UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Ciao!
Journey dates: 30th May – 6th June, 2009
Travelers: Shwetha, Karthik, Ram, Dharini
Blog Author: Shwetha Shrivatsa