Knockers w/o handles, Sienna
David by Michelangelo, Florence
Vemödalen at the Uffizi, Florence
Armillary Sphere at Galileo Museo, Florence
Bridge of Sighs, Venice
Salizzada Zusto, Venice
Leaning Tower of Bologna
Eighteen years ago, Rowan and I made our first trip to Italy, visiting Rome, Florence and Venice in late April. This year, we visited Rome, Florence and Venice in mid-April, so you'd think it'd be pretty familiar. Not so. The first, and most obvious change, is that this time round, we were accompanied by a couple of rowdy little primary school kids with little patience for art galleries, churches or archaeological sites. But that was okay - we dragged them along to a couple of each, and most of the time, they enjoyed it more than we thought they might - everything in moderation, right? And making the decision that “must-sees” actually aren't is quite liberating in its way - much more enjoyable to spend half an hour eating a gelato in a piazza and people-watching or exploring mediaeval streets than trying to shepherd two bored kids through another church where they have to be quiet and not touch anything.
The second major change was what seemed like an order of magnitude increase in the number of tourists. It was busy in 1998, but not this busy. Hour-long queues were standard for many sights, unless you booked a ticket online, and sometimes even with a ticket - another reason to limit what you attempt to do with kids. Florence, especially, seemed overfull, although we struck it lucky with a few places - when we climbed the Duomo, we got there first thing in the morning, so didn't have to wait long, and then walked straight in to the main body of the church afterwards, only to see a 50m queue when we exited that hadn't been there when we went in. A similar thing happened when we climbed Giotto's Tower - no queue when we got there, huge queue when we left. Amazingly, the two churches I most enjoyed had no queue at all: the Baptistry only had a couple of dozen people in it when we visited (the queue for the Duomo, meanwhile, stretched past the Baptistry door); and Santa Croce, which I visited by myself, was peaceful and almost empty.
A third change, and a welcome one, was knowing someone in Rome. Before we left, I had taken the boys into Richmond Mall to get some things we needed for the trip. While there, we saw a man with a table full of cheeses for tasting. My boys never pass up the chance for free food, so they made a beeline and tucked in. I got talking to the man behind the table and he asked if we'd been to Rome. I told him that I'd been many years ago, but that we were going to be there in April. Next thing I knew, I had his email address and he said he'd be back there then and might be able to sort out somewhere for us to stay. Cool! During the first part of our trip, I emailed Flavio and he said their holiday rental was available while we were there, so we had somewhere to stay. Flavio and his wife Flavia turned out to be perfect hosts - not only did we have a great place to stay, but we had some delicious meals on their recommendations, and in their company, and they also suggested a couple of things to see that we might have missed out on otherwise - the Aventine keyhole and the Palazzo Valentini being particular highlights.
A few other things that I really enjoyed in Italy were learning to make pizza and gelato from scratch in a Chianti villa; following a “treasure hunt” through Venice that I'd found on the internet, including crossing the Grand Canal by traghetto - the cheapest gondola ride you'll ever have; the special beauty of the scientific instruments of the past at the Galileo Museum in Florence; the quality of the food everywhere; and the surprisingly pleasant afternoon spent wandering the streets of Ancona before we took the overnight ferry to Split. I'm not sure when we'll next be back in Italy, but I'm already looking forward to it.
Rome was pretty much completely the opposite of what I expected. My impression before we arrived was drawn from books about ancient Rome. Ancient Rome. So we flew in from Marrakech airport and at first I didn't even realise that we were above the home of Julius Caeser and his gladiators. Except, yet again my mind has wandered to my fantasies of Rome. It is really just like any other city. Well, it was, but that was before you take into account the many Roman ruins and buildings still left standing, forever destined to be overpriced and touristy.
We stayed with some friends in Rome. We found ourselves heading to the Trevi fountain more than 13 times during our brief stay of six days (see before and after). We also headed to the Vittoriano. (FACT 1: The sculptors of one of the large bronze horses adorning the side of the steps of the Vittoriano made its stomach hollow. Then once they were finished, they had a table set up inside, and had a celebratory feast.) Another famous monument that we visited was the Colosseum. This was amazing, especially because of the stage rotting away over time, and exposing the underground tunnels beneath the arena. (FACT 2: The line to get past security at the Colosseum sometimes stretches the whole way round the circumference of the arena!)
The next stop of our trip was in Florence. After the train from Rome, we were glad to head to the Piazza Michelangelo to watch the sunset. Among the other highlights in Florence was climbing to the top of the tallest building in Florence, the Duomo. There was an epic view over tho whole city, dotted every here and there with many church towers. Another thing that stood out in Florence are all the street signs. We also visited David (the statue).
While we were in Florence day we did a day trip to Siena. Here we climbed up the central clock tower and got some pretty cool views over the Campo. This is a semi-circular "square". It is pretty much half of a bowl because the square has a dip in the middle. (my explanation is horrible. It was half a soup bowl. (I think I already said that but I'm two deep in brackets so I'm gonna stop.)). They cover the whole Campo in sand once every year to have a horse race. The square dips to make it easy for the horses to turn. But still people get seriously hurt. We watched a video of it and one rider fell off and got completely trampled! He lay on the ground for about 30 seconds, and I thought he was dead, but then he jumped up and ran to the side of the race.
Next was Venice. This was the fortunate location of Kieran's 9th birthday, which ensured us a gondola ride and a very unhealthy breakfast. We spent four days on the Island of Islands, and got many good times in. Surprisingly, none of us fell into the canals, despite leaning out over them over 50 times. Mum organised a "treasure hunt" that was really just supposed to keep Kieran and I occupied for the day. We did see some interesting things on the hunt though, including a column base on the Doge's palace that had an angle down to 10 centimetres on the outside of the column, before a drop down to the water. This was used as a death-trial for prisoners. If the prisoner could edge 360˚ around the column with their back constantly against it, they were released. But, if they fell in, the condemned would be fished out and killed on the spot. In my opinion there was an unfair advantage to those who had flat-soled shoes on (If they had those back then).
We had a very fun time in Italy, But sadly we have to end soon. Bologna for one day, then Ancona to board an overnight ferry to Croatia...
After the start we've made on this trip the next place we visited always had a tough act to follow. Italy might be one of the few countries bold enough to try.
We re-traced the steps (and train journeys) of a trip that Emily and I did half a lifetime ago in, cough, 1998. Rome, Florence, Sienna, Venice. But with some significant differences from last time we were here.
For a start, we were not travelling quite so cheaply, so we stayed in some nice places. In Rome especially we were spoiled by our new friends Flavio and Flavia who allowed us to stay in their lovely apartment a stone's throw (or a euro coin over the shoulder?) from the Trevi Fountain, and did a great job of making us fall in love with the ancient city. The moral of that story: always sample the cheese!
One morning, we got up really early and briefly had the whole place to ourselves (HT Sarah Walker). It was amazing to experience without having to wrestle through thousands of tourists and the selfie-stick sellers keen for their business. Actually everywhere we went we were slightly put off by the volume of tourists, all trying to tick off the famous sights. Maybe our memory is rose tinted but it did seem to be much worse this time. Although I'm reminded of the saying "you're not stuck in traffic, you are traffic".
Another morning, also an early start, I did the fun run that is part of the Rome Marathon, which we unexpectedly overlapped with. That was great - not only because it's been more difficult to get some exercise in that I had hoped so far on this trip, but also because it was nice to get a bit of a taste of being a normal Roman for a day, especially mingling with others at the start, near the Colosseum, and in the finishing area at the Circus Maximum. Walking back to the apartment we saw both men's and women's winner cross the finish line, which was an exciting teaser for Rio later in the year.
It was neat to be able to take the kids to some properly monumental places: the Forum, Colosseum and St Peters (where we stumbled unexpectedly on a papal service) in Rome; Piazza Michaelanglo, Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo, L'Accademia and Uffizi Galleries in Florence; the Grand Canal, San Marco Square and the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. But, as always, it was random things which grabbed their attention: the more recently added modesty fig leaves on some of the status at the Olympic Stadium in Rome ("covering their ba-doink-a-doinks", as Kieran says); the artist in Florence who had hacked a lot of street signs with stickers; the hands on science experiments at the Galileo Museum; and the fire "truck" speeding along the grand canal in Venice (and the panicked gondolier rushing to try and get his even more panicked tourists out of their way).
It did feel at times like this whole leg of the trip was a slow giant carbo-load. Thanks especially to Stefano for entertaining our boys with some Clash of Clans while we enjoyed an amazing dinner in Rome, and to Barry in Melbourne for some great restaurant tips in Florence, where some great food after a long day on our feet made all the difference. We also spent one night in a villa in the Tuscan hills overlooking the Chianti Valley learning to make our own pizza and gelato from scratch which was fun, satisfying and delicious (and, yes, there were a couple of cheeky references to fava beans during the evening too!)
We finished up with a night in Bologna, which was new for all of us. We found a traditional trattoria and ordered Bolognese. When in Rome, and all of that...
Those we've spoken to back home keep inferring that time must be passing quickly, but actually that's not our experience so far. We're packing a huge amount in, and maybe that's causing it to feel slower. It's slightly daunting to think that we still have 8+ months of this to go!
Well it all started when we went to the Trevi fountain and got photos all to our selves and not so long after that we appeared at the Colosseum where some builders had re-built some of the seats. The Romans built the Colosseum in 8 years while most big now-day stadiums take longer than that!?!?!?.
So let's leave Rome and start on Florence. So ... we went to Michelangelo's David, and climbed up the Duomo and the bell tower we even experienced the bells ringing. We also went to a Galileo museum and learnt how a ball going on a diagonal is the shortest way (it's shorter than a curved one straightened out) but it isn't always the quickest way.
Now we are in Venice Mum and I got sick but let's focus on my birthday. For brekker we got some pastries and gelato and went out on a gondola ride then we bought a little wooden hand crafted gondola from signor blum ... bye