In November 1997, my spouse and I traveled to Italy. With one foot in the past and the other in the present, we explored the many facets of this wondrous country and our families’ history.
We started our journey in Milan, where designers flock to the city’s runways and shoppers swarm to purchase their wear. With the shoppers came pickpockets, who are prolific, especially in and around Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and the Piazza del Duomo. Gypsy children and teens practiced their sleight-of-hand on unsuspecting tourists’ purses and pockets.
Despite the sticky-fingered miscreants, Milan had several upsides. The first was Leonardo de Vinci’s mural, The Last Supper, covering an entire wall in the convent, Santa Maria delle Grazie. The second was the Duomo di Milano. This cathedral is absolutely gorgeous, and the views from its rooftop terrace are breathtaking. The third was the Sforza Castle, a Medieval-Renaissance fortress with historical museums, containing art from da Vinci and Michelangelo. The final Milan must-see for me—the genealogy addict—was the Cimitero Monumentale di Milano, one of the two largest cemeteries in Milan, noted for an abundance of artistic tombs and monuments.
Upon leaving Milan, we enjoyed the scenic beauty of Tuscany, stopping first to spend a few days in Florence, touted as a cultural and artistic hub of Italy. One of this city’s must-see sites is the Santa Maria del Fiore.
I have a funny story that I would like to share with you about my quest to see the Florence Cathedral. My spouse and I thought it would be a great idea to travel on foot from our hotel to the cathedral, so off we went. Rising in the distance, we could see the Santa Maria del Fiore, but we could not determine where we were on the map we were carrying. It was obvious: We needed help. Luckily, I spotted a member of the Carabinieri (Italy’s military police) and inquired, “Scusi, dov’è la Duomo di Firenze?” and pointed to the map. He looked at the map then looked at me with a slightly sheepish smile. I thought that maybe I had botched my Italian pronunciation or grammar. No, my Italian must have been comprehensible because the officer pointed to me before indicating a spot completely off the map. I chuckled at how far off course we were.
Eventually, we made it to the historic section of Florence. We saw the Baptistery of St. John with its golden doors (the Gates of Paradise). Not far away was the Santa Maria del Fiore with its distinctive red-tiled dome and Giotto’s Campanile, a nearly 300-foot bell tower that offers a great vantage point of the city. After touring the Duomo and bell tower, we enjoyed the architectural splendor of the Piazza della Signoria, an L-shaped piazza dominated by the Palazzo Vecchio.
We then headed to the nearby Uffizi and Accademia Galleries, located in Piazza del Signoria. These museums house some of the world’s greatest works of art, including Boticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Michelangelo’s David. Sadly, when we went to visit these museums, the workers there were on a one-day strike (just my luck). The reason behind the strike is unknown. Strikes seem to be a common occurrence in some European countries (or at least the ones I have visited).
Since we were barred from entering the Uffizi and Accademia Galleries, we meandered over to the Ponte Vecchio, perusing the shops that align this famous bridge. On the other side of the River Arno was the Palazzo Pitti, a Renaissance-era palace once owned by the Medici family. The palazzo is the largest museum complex in Florence, housing several museums and galleries. I especially enjoyed perusing the artwork in the Palatine Gallery and the furnishings of the Royal Apartments, as well as the tranquility and opulence of the Boboli Gardens.
Crossing back across the Ponte Vecchio, we turned right and ended up at the Piazza di Santa Croce where we toured the Basilica di Santa Croce, where the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo Galilei, Niccolò Machiavelli, Gioacchino Rossini, and others are found. When then headed back to the hotel, checking out the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella en route.
After leaving Florence, we visited one of my favorite sites in Tuscany: the walled city of Siena, where the Palio, a city-wide horse race, is held twice a year. The Palio takes place in the Piazza del Campo. Since 1633, this race has been run on July 2nd in conjunction with the Feast of the Visitation and the festival honoring the Madonna di Provenzano. Then, starting in 1701, a second race was added on August 16th to coincide with the Feast of the Assumption. Standing in the middle of the piazza on that cold November day, I swore I could hear the cadence of horses’ hooves clip-clopping on the cobblestones.
Siena residents are proud of their traditions. Not only do the faithfully participate in the Palio, but they also faithfully attend church. The Duomo di Siena was built between 1215 and 1263. The cathedral is shaped like a Latin cross with a dome and bell tower. The exterior and interiors are decorated in white and greenish-black marble in alternating stripes. (Black and white are the symbolic colors of Siena.)
After Siena, we traveled to Venice, one of the most captivating cities I have ever encountered. From the mainland, we boarded a vaporetti (water bus). With the wind in my hair and the sun on my face, we raced over the waves toward the Grand Canal. Upon disembarking, we headed to our luxury hotel on the Grand Canal. The next day, during the solitude of sunrise, I gazed across the canal at the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, listening to the rhythmic rapping of the tide—gondolas swaying back and forth to the beat.
A couple of hours later, we ventured out into waterlogged walkways. Each year, between October and December, Venice floods nearly every morning during acqua alta (high tide). It is amazing how the Venetians have adapted to this inconvenience, laying boards end-to-end on braces to allow pedestrians to traverse through the streets as if on balance beams.
We walked from our hotel through a narrow alley, emerging under an archway into the grandeur of the Piazza San Marco. Across the open space lay the Basilica di San Marco with its bronze horses standing sentinel above the entry. To the right, the Campanile di San Marco loomed high over the piazza. Behind the basilica was the Palazzo Ducale. We spent hours enthralled with the breathtaking beauty of the Doge’s Palace. And as I walked from the Doge’s Palace to the Prigioni via the Ponte dei Sospiri, I swear I heard the soft sighs of past prisoners whisper on the wind. After finishing our tour of the prison, we returned to San Marco Square, where the tide had receded. However, instead of floodwaters, the piazza was packed with pigeons. We waded through the fowl flock. (Personally, I prefer the water…)
Radiating out from the Piazza San Marco is an intricate maze of canals, alleys, and bridges. Each day, we explored the twist and turns of the city, often getting lost in its labyrinth. One evening, after all the day tourists had departed, we set off in search of the Rialto Bridge. The streets were silent. After several missed turns and deviations from our original route, we finally found the most famous bridge in Venice. Before we headed back to the hotel, I took a moment to savor a steamy espresso in the crisp autumn air.
The next day, we were determined to enjoy the artistic masterpieces housed in the Gallerie dell’Accademia and the Museo di Palazzo Grimani. It was a long, yet fulfilling day. With tired feet and full hearts, we ended our last day in Venice.
After bidding a reluctant goodbye to Venice, we journeyed to Rome, a city that balances old and new, tradition and change. From the Trevi Fountain to the Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome is teeming with history. The Coliseum is encircled by four lanes of heavy traffic. The Vatican is bordered by fast-food and chic designers. An ancient Roman temple has been converted to a Catholic church. Highlighting Roman squares are Egyptian obelisks, booty from past conquests. These monoliths are topped with golden crosses.
While in Rome, we stayed in the Parco dei Principi Grand Hotel. Next door was the Giardino Zoologico di Roma, a 42-acre zoo opened in 1911. When we visited this zoo in 1997, we were shocked at how small the animal enclosures were and how run-down some areas of the zoo had become. Luckily, our concerns must have been echoed by many others because, a year later, the zoo began its transformation into a biopark—a blending of a zoo with a botanic garden. (Today, the animals are housed in exhibits similar to their natural habitat.) The zoo sits on the grounds of the Villa Borghese, a nearly 200-acre public park. Also on the grounds is the Galleria Borghese. This museum boasts masterpieces by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael), and Tiziano Vecelli (Titian).
Early the next morning, we ventured to the Vatican. Words alone cannot express the splendor of the Vatican. From its museums to the Sistine Chapel to St. Peter’s Basilica to St. Peter’s Piazza, I was absolutely awestruck. I looked just like a kid in a candy shop with eyes wide as saucers and mouth agape.
On our final day in Rome, we took a taxi to the Coliseum. After learning a bit about Ancient Rome and marveling at the Coliseum, we began our trek back to the hotel, past the Roman Forum ruins, the Capitoline Museums, the Altare della Patria, and the Pantheon. Between these stops, we strolled through myriad piazzas (including Campo de’ Fiori and Piazza Navona), sampled local cuisine, and marveled at the stunning architecture. We soaked up the culture in the warm sun while casting wishes in fountains, including the world-famous Trevi. We then came to the Spanish Steps and began our slow ascent of yet another of Rome’s seven hills. At the top, we visited the Villa Medici before heading back through its gardens, adjacent to the Borghese Gardens. After a long, hot day, we arrived at our hotel, foot-weary and sweaty but thoroughly enlightened.
SORRENTO, POMPEII, CAPRI
In stark contrast to the metropolitan sprawl of Rome, Sorrento, a small town half an hour south of Naples and Pompeii, rises quietly in quaint terraces above the Mediterranean Sea. In the distance, the precipice of Mt. Vesuvius looms. The southern landscape is saturated with olive trees: nets hung from tree to tree catch the harvest in its descent. The sea meets the land dramatically, with cliff walls plummeting hundreds of feet to the water. I spent a memorable afternoon overlooking the Bay of Naples from Sorrento’s heights while sipping an ice-cold limoncello.
We spent our first full day in this region trekking through Pompeii. Circa 24 August in the year 79 A.D., Mt. Vesuvius erupted. A 17-year old by the name of Pliny the Younger, documented the eruption:
I cannot give you a more exact description of its appearance than by comparing to a pine tree for it shot up to a great height in the form of a tall trunk, which spread out at the top as though into branches. […] Occasionally it was brighter, occasionally darker and spotted, as it was either more or less filled with earth and cinders.
According to his correspondence, Pliny was awoken by a tremor that night. Another tremor struck around dawn. With the third tremor “the sea seemed to roll back upon itself and be driven from its banks.” The early light was obscured by a black cloud through which flashes of light appears, similar to sheet lightning. This cloud obscured nearby Point Misenum, as well as the island of Capri across the bay. A rain of ash fell. Pliny noted that it was necessary to shake off the ash to avoid being buried, comparing the ash to a blanket of snow. Later that day, the falling ash ceased, and the sun shone weakly through the haze.
When the volcanic activity finally ended, Pompeii lay in ruins, and thousands of people had perished. Approximately 1,100 casts have been made from impressions of bodies in the ash deposits in and around Pompeii; the scattered bones of another 100 people have been discovered. The majority of the body molds were found inside buildings. It is surmised that these people were probably killed by roof collapses or falling debris. The remaining 62% of remains found at Pompeii were within pyroclastic surge deposits. One of the pyroclastic surges produced temperatures reaching 572 °F that killed hundreds of people in a fraction of a second. The bodies were frozen in suspended action. Today, stray dogs roam the ruins, residing side-by-side with the spirits of those who passed away so long ago. I found it to be a sobering experience—one that I shall never forget.
Across the way, the island of Capri, renowned for its Blue Grotto and natural serenity, rises majestically in the morning mist. The next morning, we boarded a ferry, crossing the bay to this picturesque island. We disembarked in the quaint town of Capri. Shopping abounds in this village. We enjoyed some gelato in Piazza Umberto I while watching locals and a few tourists stroll by. We also visited the remains of Villa Jovis, a palace built by Roman Emperor Tiberius in the 1st Century. This villa covered more than two acres and was built on several levels.
Afterward, we headed to Anacapri, a town perched atop the island. To get there, one must either navigate a circuitous, narrow road or take the funicular. Our group braved the road up, barely dodging descending traffic determined to run our vehicle off the road. After touring the beautiful garden of Villa San Michele and soaking up the splendor below, we climbed on board the funicular, where we sang:
Jammo, jammo ‘ncoppa jammo jà
Jammo, jammo ‘ncoppa jammo jà
‘ncoppa jammo jà
Originally published on 8 August 2018: Ciao Italia