As a high school graduation present for my amazing daughter, she, a girlfriend and I embarked on our first trip to Italy. Fabulous, another dream comes true. And, it was so much fun to plan! During spring break in March of 2002, we left Houston IAH, to arrive at Rome’s Fumiciano Airport (via Philadelphia). Forgetting we only spoke English – although I had studied a wee bit of Italian - it was a challenge to find a taxi, and then give proper instructions to the Roma Termini! We had train tickets to Florence. Once all of that was solved, we ended up with another challenge. The stazione! So many tracks, and (dah!) all instructions in Italian. But of course! We were such novices. Upon asking a few stilted questions of patient attendant in broken Italian and deciphering the information, we determined the correct track from which our train would depart. The girls had a snack, their first Panini, I just waited.
The train arrived and we stumbled on with our luggage. This two hour trip was memorable to me because of the change in air pressure each time we went through a tunnel. And, we went through lots of tunnels! Firenze (Florence) at last. Magnifico! Again at a stazione, we finally make our way to Hotel Sempione via taxi. Funny, but it seemed like it took us forever to get to the hotel, and I later discovered how close we actually were to the stazione. Tourist! It was after 2:00 p.m. when we arrived, about eighteen hours from launch. The first thing I did was take a shower! The rooms were clean, small and a bit noisy. But really, I didn’t care, I was in Firenze! Fatigue didn’t hold us back, we went exploring – up the Via to the Duomo. I was speechless, such beauty. The Cathedral of Florence took almost 200 years to complete and was consecrated in 1436 – the current façade, though, was added between 1871 and 1887. It was truly amazing. Because hunger struck after this discovery, we managed to find a self-serve café and enjoyed a simple dinner on a piazza near the Duomo.
The next day, I joyfully realized I had awakened in Florence. I meandered down to the breakfast area and partook of the continental breakfast provided. Certainly adequate. I am really looking forward to the day, yet I needed to get the girls going. Fortunately they have their own room on a separate floor from mine, and I try to diplomatically build a fire under them. They do finally get going after some harassing (not so diplomatic) and they get a bite to eat. I felt a little bit like an ogre. The Galleria dell’ Academia, where The David is located, is on the agenda. Since it was only a semi-short walk, we arrived there in due time and waited in the short queue. Once inside the Academia, we find the magnificent statue of David by Michelangelo. Breathtaking, stupendous, indescribable! No words are truly adequate. I could have stayed there all day!
Florence was fabulous – we walked as much as we could, ate in small cafes and tried to absorb the local feeling. We shopped (finding fantastic leather goods), we sipped wine in piazzas. One special memory was enjoying a glass of Blanco Toscano at the Kaffehaus in the hillside Boboli Gardens behind the Palazzo Pitti. Then there’s the Ponte Vecchio built in 1345, a bridge which spans across the Arno River containing shops abundant with gorgeous jewelry. (Originally there were food and other merchants long, long ago. But, a ruling Medici didn’t like the “plebian” atmosphere, so only allowed goldsmiths and jewelers.) Oh, and I must not forget the Uffizi – the marvelous museum full of pre-Renaissance art. There were way too many astounding places to visit – but we picked some wonderful ones, the Cappelle Medici with more of Michelangelo’s works – monuments to the Medici nobles.
One day we took a train over to Pisa. Not being too sure how far the Duomo was from the train station, we decided to follow our noses and walk the distance. Almost a disaster – boy, were we exhausted by the time we found the piazza. But, once inside the compound, who cared how far we had walked! There, in front of our eyes, was one of the most famous buildings – Torre di Pisa, the free standing campanile. After exploring the Duomo, although we did not go into the tower, we took a respite and I sipped some wine in the Caffe Duomo overlooking the Leaning Tower. What more could one want? We managed to find a bus back to the train station – the wait for our train back to Florence was longer than expected and it proved to be crowded. We managed to jump on along with many others, and as the train started to move, the doors began to close, we quickly jerked my daughter inside just in the nick of time! Back in Florence, we continued to enjoy the ambiance and had a very nice dinner at the Brunelleschi Restaurant overlooking the roofs of Florence and the Duomo in the distance. Time to rest – for on the morrow we take a special tour.
In the morning, we walk to the tour office and arrive by 8:50 – the girls did not get breakfast. Two other people join us and we embark in a white van to the hills of Tuscany. Winding roads take us through the hillside town of Fiesole. We arrive at a small castle where the owners make their own wine and olive oil from the surrounding vineyard and olive groove. The castle was built in 1850, still family held, and has a phenomenal view of Florence. We partake of the traditional dipping of bread in olive oil along with slices of pecorino cheese. In addition to this small feast, we taste some of the spectacular wine made there at the estate. Our first formal wine tasting!
Back in Florence we have the afternoon for the Uffizi. Excitedly we wait in the queue for about an hour. To our delight there is room after room of pre-Renaissance art. My daughter is our guide, as she enjoyed this aspect of Art History in school. Many of Botticelli’s works are here – and we were able to view one of her favorites: The Birth of Venus. After the Uffizi, we return to our hotel to freshen up then go out for dinner down the street at Fontciane – wonderful! This is our last night in Florence.
I wake early, pack some things, have breakfast and get the girls going. By mid-morning they are ready and we check out of the Sempione. At the stazione we await a train, which is late, to Roma. And, of course when the train finally does come, we find that our car is way at the other end! As I make the girls dash for it dragging our luggage behind us, we finally reach our car. Probably didn’t need to rush so, but I’ve seen how fast the trains pull out! The trip is pleasant, although I still can’t get used to all the pressure changes. The girls have lunch in the dining car and report that their choices were horrible. Oh well.
It is around 2:30 when we arrive in Roma; get a taxi to our hotel. This hotel is in the financial area not too far from the Stazione Centrale Roma Termini. The hotel building is old, truly characteristic, and the main door is recessed down a short walkway from the street. We take an old-fashioned caged elevator to the second floor where the reception desk is located. We check-in, settle in, and relax a bit. Then, after an hour or so we head out – walking. We try to navigate the streets and hills of Rome referring to our small fold-out map – I quickly lose my sense of direction. Our destination is Piazza de Spagna. Down a hill, up a hill – via some narrow streets and past a tremendous amount of architectural wonders.
We find the Spanish steps – lots of folks! Of course, we must traverse the steps, and so we do. At the top of the steps, we enter a church for a brief glance - Santissima Trinità dei Monti. Going back down the Via, we are in the fashion district and walk past many famous designer shops (Prada, for one). We stumble on the Pantheon, and then in our wonderings we come across the Trevi Fountain. Many, many folks here also. But the girls do throw some coins in – tradition! Lots of vendors willing to share their goods approach each new visitor to the Trevi. We stay for only a little while, and then head back to the hotel. Taking a wrong turn, we end up near the Roman Forum! Finally, though we do find our way back, ask our desk attendant about a place to eat and he recommends a fabulous place not too far from the hotel. A little wine and we unwind!
On Thursday we are up and out by 10:00. Wish it had been sooner, but oh well. We take a Taxi over to the Vatican. As I step out of the taxi, I am awed, speechless. St. Peter’s Square is stupendous, compelling. We spot a group of people and find they are in a queue to gain entrance to Basilica di San Pietro. While we wait in the queue, we manage to attach ourselves to a tour. A little eavesdropping and we learn some things about Michelangelo’s Pieta – which we are indeed fortunate to see (behind its protective glass) – and St. Peter’s. I touch the foot of St. Peter’s statue – said to bring good luck. The foot has an indentation because of those who have come before me and touched that very same spot.
St. Peter’s is just the appetizer – we then head toward the entrance of the Vatican museum. It’s a long way around from the exit of the cathedral (500m) and I feel as if we will never find the entrance. Yet, we do. As we pay an admission fee, I am overwhelmed by the size of the place, but am anxious to find my ultimate destination. Security is tight here as well, and we go through two checkpoints. We pass through hall, after hall of amazing antiquities, precious and valuable. Painting after sculpture, after artifact (challises, bibles, things used in past services). So amazing. It is said that if one stops at each display it could take 10 years to go through the Vatican Museum. I hardly want to stop at anything because I want to see just one thing. We get closer and closer until we are finally in another queue for Cappella Sistine. The chapel is beyond description – the restoration work so worth it. Hundreds of people walking around with heads leaning back and eyes on one thing: Michelangelo’s master piece! The guard occasionally tells the crowd to be quiet – and in hushed tones we continue to gawk
When we exit the Cappella, we end up in another maze of hallways – after purchasing a few memorabilia, we make our exit from a most wonderful building. Finding a taxi, we return to the hotel. After a bit of rest we find a small deli in the neighborhood and have some delicious sandwiches. Then we are off again, this time to the Coliseum. Once again, I am awestruck. So much history, so much toil, so much agony, so much romance has been handed down over the centuries – and, here I am walking under the arches and through this magnificent building whose walls hold secrets no one will ever discover. We meet up with some folks the girls met in Florence. But, I am so tired I want to sit – we find a trattoria across from the Coliseum at the entrance to the Metro. So, we cross the busy street (the road that circles the Coliseum is buzzing with traffic) and finally get to enjoy some wine. The girls and their friends head off for a shopping excursion and I make my way back to the hotel (via taxi – there are taxis everywhere). Our five days in stunning Italy are at an end. This is the last night of my first trip to Italy – and now, I await the girls for the return to our Texas home on the morrow.