We started our Italian adventure from Venice, a city with so much history, complexity and glory. The place we stayed is in a compound of nicely maintained and decorated apartment buildings in Lido, a boat ride from the bustling Venice city center. It is a self-contained unit with a living room and a full kitchen.
We bought three-day transportation passes that allow us to access all the vaporetto boats traveling around all waters and the Grand Canal. The way the city manages its massive waterway traffic was very effective and efficient. The waterbus gets you to and from airport, train stations and outer islands.
We spent our first day entirely around Piazza San Marco (photo, Piazza San Marco). We spent four hours in the Doge’s Palace (photo, Doge's Palace), with its gigantic museum spanning four floors. The rooms are filled with treasures and decorated to the teeth, and there is not a single inch of space on the ceiling or wall that is not covered by elaborate paintings or sculptures. We were so hungry after that that we feasted at Osteria Da Carla with their fresh handmade ravioli and prosciutto. We finished our day by trekking through Museo Correr and the adjacent Archeological Museum, again with giant renaissance paintings. On the way back, we picked up some groceries for next morning.
The second day weather was even better with just a few clouds and a light fog. We rode the water taxi to Dorsoduro neighborhood to first visit Basilica de Santa Maria della Salute (photo, Santa Maria della Salute), and show our respect to the health god. We were amazed by Peggy Guggenheim’s collection of modern art. Her mansion on the Canal was a treasure house with a lot of fun modern masterpieces from Picasso, Miro, Calder (photo, Calder's Red Dog), Klee and Jackson Pollock. It was a treat. The next stop was Gallerie dell'Accademia with 24 rooms full of more renaissance masters' work. We had a mid-day break and enjoyed some really nice thin crusted pizzas at a local tavern. Richard was in heaven with his gorgonzola cheese pizza. We walked off the lunch by getting lost in the Dorsoduro and San Polo neighborhoods (photo, Venice neighborhood) with hundreds of small shops selling fine craftsmanship. Finally we reached Ca' Rezzonico (photo, Ca' Rezzonico), another grand mansion turned into museum showcasing the best of Venice, the large pieces of renaissance paintings even Napoleon could not loot them out.
Our third day we tried to be a little better organized so we started out early to arrive at the Basilica San Marco and take places in line before the church opened its door. The mosaics inside are truly amazing and grand. They are high up on the ceilings along with giant figures depicting the life of Saint Mark and how his body was smuggled into Venice by merchants in a barrel of lard. We did a little bit of gift shopping for Venetian glass jewelry and typical gondola driver T-shirt and continued to Chiesa Di Santa Maria dei Miraccoli, a miracle church where an image of the Madonna started weeping in late 15th century (photo, miraculous portrait). We wanted to see Ca' Pesaro, another museum of modern and oriental art, but they are closed Mondays. We decided to ride the waterbus out to Murano, an artistic island home to glass masters and craftsmen since the 15th century. There is a fun glass museum we stopped by and saw some amazing pieces on display, and a video showing detailed technique of glass blowing of all sorts of shape, size and color. An unforgettable experience. On the way back to town to our last dinner in Venice, Barbara got ahead of herself and ended up on a wrong boat to the wrong direction. After some panic moves, she finally got back to where she was supposed to be and able to enjoy a lovely black squid ink spaghetti with tender and tasty squid pieces.
The fourth day saw us in transit. We got up at a reasonable hour, had a good breakfast and packed up. We made the train station just in time to get on a shiny Eurorail high speed train to Florence. Upon arrival, we were able to walk to our apartment, barely five minutes from the station. The keeper Daniel upgraded us to a large two-room-plus apartment on the fourth floor. The place has high ceilings, full kitchen, and a wrap-around terrace with awning. We walked to Gallerie Academia where Michelangelo's David is, to make a reservation to get in the following day, but upon the suggestion of the helpful staff we decided a reservation would not be needed. The Academia is in the neighborhood of the University of Florence. We discovered a lively Chinatown with restaurants and supermarkets, apparently a favorite hangout area for Chinese students. We ate dinner at a local Chinese restaurant which seemed to be a gathering place for Chinese students. On the way home, we stopped at Conad, the local supermarket, for snacks and breakfast fixins.
The fifth day was rainy and cold, so we decided to take a bus to Uffizi Gallery, even though the walk would only take 20 minutes. We had an unintentional city tour on the C2 bus. The museum visit was very fun, and we had time to also enjoy Museum Del Bargello, where earlier Michelangelo works were on display, before engaging with the rather daunting and enormous Uffizi. The powerful Medici family (photo, Medici portraits) was probably the world’s oldest collectors for generations, with thousands of master works, for which they built three corridors of golden halls on the Arno River (photo, bridge over the Arno). Da Vinci, Botticelli and Michelangelo are all represented here. The square outside Palazzo Vecchio has a replica of the famous David as well as a Neptune with all his attendants (photo, Neptune's statue). The rain did not damp tourists' enthusiasm for snapping pictures with their selfie sticks. We lunched at Osteria Il Buongustai, just off the square, with some true Tuscan home cooking. Hua enjoyed their tripe, so tender it practically melts in your mouth.
We started day six with a few clouds in the sky, stopping at the Church of Santa Maria Novella (photo, church) for a serene start to the day. The church is just five minutes walk from our hotel. The site was originally used as a cemetery, and the grounds feature a host of ancient tombs. The building is very graceful and humbling with its high gothic ceilings. We continued on to the Basilica del San Lorenzo, which functioned as the Medici family's parish and mausoleum. Our next stop was the Duomo (photo, Florence Duomo), the city’s most iconic landmark. The treasures within were stunningly beautiful and the mosaic dome ceiling breathtaking. Richard climbed the 463 steps of the dome, to take panoramic pictures from a birdseye view, while the rest of us relaxed at a restaurant on the ground, eating pizza and enjoying our lattes. Afterwards in the afternoon, we went back to the Gallery of Academia, where we finally confronted the real Michelango David (photo, David). He is utterly beautiful. On the way back home, we stopped to buy a bottle of white wine and some cheese, mushrooms, fruits and breads, so we had a relaxing evening at our fully equipped apartment. We really enjoyed the apartment, an oasis in the middle of all the action despite its location so close to the train station.
Day seven was a gorgeous and sunny day, so we decided to use our rail pass to explore the surrounding region. We took the train all the way to Cinque Terre and visited two of the five villages that cling to the cliffs facing the ocean. Monterosso (photo, beach scene) is a beach town and resort. We had ice cream (gelato!) even before lunch, and feasted on a typical Tuscan pesto sauce over freshly made noodles. We stopped also in Manarola (photo, boats everywhere), a small village built on the slope of the hill right up against the ocean. It is hard to imagine how they built everything centuries ago. Our rail pass really paid off, because we were on and off trains about a dozen times with the pass, all counting as one day's travel, worry free. On the way back home, we stopped at Pisa after dark and saw the leaning tower lit against the clear night sky (photo, Tower at night). It was perfectly positioned with its church and other buildings, all called Field of Miracles, mysterious and elegant. We enjoyed some cappuccino, sandwiches and desserts at a cafe in view of the tower.
Day eight was our travel day to Rome. The high speed train was smooth and the ride pleasant and uneventful. We arrived close to noon and took the Metro A line to Ottaviano and got to our bed-and-breakfast located in a small apartment building not far from the Vatican. We rested a bit, had some sandwich for lunch, and set out to explore Rome using the hop-on/hop-off bus. The stop is a seven-minute walk from our hotel, practically at the foot of the Vatican's paramount dome of St Peter’s (photo, Vatican). We learned that the Vatican is an independent state, separate from Italy, and the border between the two sovereignties is basically just a 3 foot moveable fence. We rode the bus for the entire length of its nine stops, taking in the sights along the way, and planned our visit for the next three days. It is an impressive city with more than 2500 years history, cobblestoned wide boulevards still serving the Romans after all the years. It is overwhelming. The red bus we booked is the "original" hop-on/hop-off operator, though nowadays there are at least five competitors offering similare routes. The original bus remains the biggest such operator with more buses and better flexibility for riders. We stopped at Frasitini restaurant for dinner, and were very happy with our selection of fish, pizza and spaghetti. The best part of the dinner was their special dessert, a rich lava chocolate cake swimming in a to-die-for rich creamy sauce. Yummy.
Our day nine was a Sunday, when the Vatican is not open to the public. We headed instead to the Borghese Museum (photo, Borghese Museum) knowing we need to make a reservation to come back later. To our surprise, the tickets are sold out for the next 72 hours, after the day of our departure. We were disappointed but vowed to come back to Rome. We strolled around the Villa Borghese, a big park compound where bikes, tricycles and segways can be rented to explore the vast ground. We continued to the colosseum and found out they also just stopped selling entrance tickets. It seemed a kind of bust for the day, but we got to see the beautiful city under perfect weather and walked all the way along the Roman Forum back to our bus stop. We headed back to our neighborhood for dinner, at a restaurant recommended by our B and B host, Ai Balestrari. It's an older establishment (since 1862!). Again, the food did not disappoint. Pizza was superb and pasta was rich and creamy, and the Tiramisu was the best we have ever tasted.
Day ten started with our pre-booked Skip-the-Line tour of the Vatican. We made it to our starting point with 20 like-minded tourists, led by our guide Patricia for a three-hour walking tour. Passing by the long line of tourists waiting to buy entry tickets, we felt quite superior that we just marched into the Vatican Museum (photo, museum facade) without any delay. Patricia must have done this for countless times and knows the whole place like the back of her hand. She was knowledgeable, straightforward and very protective of all of her charges. We all wore the portable receivers with headphones so the guides' explanations don't disturb other visitors and groups. We witnessed the Sistine Chapel's amazing ceilings by Michelangelo, St Peter’s Pieta (photo, Pieta) by the same master, and Bernini’s colonnade-framed piazza (photo, big square). We were going to climb the 565 step dome but felt discouraged by the long line (waiting time two hours) so we gave that one up. We noshed on some sandwiches on the tour bus on the way to the Colosseum (photo, Colosseum) and made it inside at a reasonable hour, just enough time to see what is being offered inside. Walking along the inside of this 50,000 seat arena is quite a task. We finish up the day in another recommended local restaurant where we dined on oxtail, ravioli and pasta, and some red and white wine, plus dessert.
Day eleven, our last day in Rome, we started early by skipping the tour bus, which starts operation at 9am. Instead, we took metro to arrive at the Roman Forum (photo, Roman Forum) at their open hour of 8:30am. We found the place quiet with only a handful of early morning visitors. The waning moon was still visible behind high arches, a very special moment. The Forum ruins are vast, impressive and mesmerizing. The Palatino museum offers great items found from the ruin, and the statues were so vivid and appropriate at where they had belonged for thousand years. Afterwards, we headed over to the Trevi Fountain (photo, fountain) after a rest with ham and cheese sandwiches and fruit. The Trevi is the biggest and the most famous fountain in the world. It is so popular there are constant police patrolling to prevent visitors getting too close, throwing too many coins and possible crowd-caused accidents. We enjoyed some gelato while walking towards the Pantheon (photo, exterior and interior). It is to this day the largest unreinforced concrete dome ever built. The 2000 year old design is so simple yet shockingly beautiful. We finished our three-day bus tour at sunset, back to the Frasiti restaurant, and again enjoyed traditional Roman pasta and pizza, topped off with their wonderful wine and the now legendary lava cake dessert. Richard said his life is complete now he has had this cake (twice).
We all agreed life is indeed a splendid thing, especially if you have spent time in Italy, and in Rome.