Italy has long since been at the top of our must-visit list. Because Rome and because Pasta.
The first thing I noticed as soon as we got off the airport-train in Rome, was the delightful ratio of humans to dogs. If the happiness quotient of a nation could be measured using this very sensible index, then Italy would be right at the top!
History Lessons in Rome, Italy
The Eternal City is an eclectic mix of the old and the new living, breathing side by side. Walking through its neighborhoods, innumerable cafes, piazzas crowned with fountains is an enriching experience, to say the least. You must be prepared to walk (and most people seem to be, I saw a large group of nuns in sneakers). There are plenty of walking tours – we discovered a priceless one (literally – it’s a free app) – Rick Steves’s audio tour. It is beautifully narrated and as a bonus Rick keeps you thoroughly entertained with little gems like the link between the etymology of “vomit” and Roman history.
As you make your way through the old city, you will be faithfully accompanied by the rich smells of strong coffee, deep-fried potato and freshly baked crisp gelato cones. We started our walk at the Colosseum. The first glimpse of this 1st century structure that springs at you right after you exit the Colosseo station leaves you feeling rather out of place. Its jagged broken-down edges stand fierce like the teeth of an old tiger, and your mind quickly jettisons to the reign of gladiators and spectacular (and admittedly macabre) fights. This building could seat more than 50,000 and was even equipped to conduct naval battles.
The 17th century Trevi Fountain is testament to Rome’s aquatic obsession. In the center stands the pivotal figure of the ‘Ocean’. Water gushes out of 24 spouts, dancing over a myriad of sculptures. Crushed in on by walls of brick and mortar and people the square itself can get very noisy, but it is a fantastic spot to indulge in people watching, especially those fervently making a wish as they toss a coin into the fountain.
One of the best things about Italy are the cafes with seating spilling out onto the streets. You can enjoy course after course, as impeccably dressed Romans go about their business amidst groups of tourists greedily snapping up pictures of every monument. When our long lunch meandered into high tea, we decided to get moving.
Piazza Navona, built around 80 AD, has three fountains, the most magnificent one being Bernini’s four river fountain – dotted with exotic plant sculptures, it pays tribute to four mighty rivers one each from Asia, America, Europe and Africa. This is a great place to chill at in the evening, you can walk into one of the restaurants lining the square and watch as it comes to life after dark, with all kinds of performances.
Campo di Fiori – a piazza that is representative of free speech and power of the people, houses the statue of Bruno –One of Italy’s 16th century mathematician and cosmologist who was a proponent of the Copernican theory. This popular square also used to house the Theatre of Pompey notorious for being the spot where Julius Caesar met his end.
The Pantheon is an outstanding engineering marvel – literally meaning the abode of many Gods, this structure was first built in 27 BC, and later rebuilt around the 2nd century AD. Originally a shrine to Rome’s many nature gods, over the years it was gradually imbued in the Christianity wave. It is hard to comprehend how something of this magnitude was built with such precision, at a time when construction equipment itself was non-existent. Looking up at the perfectly symmetric dome from 2000 years ago gracefully towering above, one cannot help but be struck by the impermanence of our own lives.The Pantheon is also the final resting place for many of Rome’s kings, and also the Tomb of Rapheal.
We spent a quiet evening in Vatican City, nursing aching feet at the steps at the 4th century St Peters square. Interestingly security at the Vatican is managed by Swiss Guards, instead of Italy’s Carabinieri. A much more peaceful and organized scene that I would have imagined it to be.
The center piece of the Roman Catholic church has been brought alive in numerous art forms over the years especially in the movie Angels and Demons. The obelisk in the center of the square is an example of how the Romans integrated structures from faraway lands into their city.
The inside of the Basilica is what truly takes your breath away. The ceiling is filled with delicate artwork and the main hall of the church is a glorious sight during the day when shafts of light shine through from the ceiling to the floor. We had the benefit of seeing a sermon being delivered during our visit to the Basilica. The acoustics of the inside of the church made it excitingly haunting .
The great thing about Italy in summer is 9 pm sunsets – even after a whole day of exploring (two countries, practically) we could still make it to the Gianicolo terrace to catch the sunset. This hillock offers panoramic views of the entire city. Everything about Rome and the Romans is magical and remarkable – they even managed to turn the humble picnic into spectacular feasts, equipped with champagne, flute glasses et all.
Rome –> Naples –> Amalfi
Amalfi is prettier than a painted picture, the coast is dotted with the most charming hill-towns, off the emerald sea. If you thought that it was very exclusive and where only the elite of Europe come to spend their holidays, you’re wrong! There are plenty of B&Bs that you can get for a reasonable price if you book in advance.
We stayed in Furore – the first evening was meant to be a lazy evening in, till we realized we had to find a place to eat. What deceptively appeared as a few hundred meters away on Google maps turned out to be exactly 1235 steps down hill (yes and exactly that many up hill) albeit to a lovely little diner – Lucas’- where we ordered everything on the menu including some heady homemade wine. Particularly noteworthy were the soft pillows of Gnocchi tucked into a comforting blanket of thick, creamy butter sage and cheese sauce.
The next day we rented e-scooters from a friendly old man (I wish we could put his contact details or site link here, unfortunately he doesn’t have one, his grandsons are helping him set it up. All I can say is that he drives a dusty old red Audi Quattro) and spent a blissful day zipping on the spaghetti like roads leading the way from one town to the other – completely deserted for most part and the occasional neat pile of traffic.
The ride along the coast itself is simply breathtaking, each turn offering the most fanciful views. The towns of Ravello and Positano, make you feel like you’re starring in an exotic movie. Bright colours, ceramics and stunning flora (Did you know that petunias grow in black too?) and as night falls, twinkling lights and nimble shadows. While here, you must treat yourself to Italy’s signature Limoncello – a deliciously simple liquor made of lemon peel, spirit and sugar syrup. This beloved flavor goes into everything, from ice-cream to cakes and even soaps!
Italo, the country’s private high-speed rail company is headed by Luca di Montesemolo, yes, the gentleman who just happens to run Ferrari. Fast (ad nauseum), efficient and almost sterile – this little red bullet covered 700 km in 5 hours.
Venice is a fairytale. It is difficult to resist the city’s seductive charm. The teal waters twist and turn into every corner of the city, replacing roadways with such ease– even Google maps includes ferry directions!
The first day in Venice was a long food walk – sampling Cicchetti (bite-sized batter fried everything!) – and shopping. The alleys leading up to the Rialto Bridge have boutique stores, high-end designer labels, whimsical food stores (personal favorites- a wonky confectioners with an enormous chocolate fountain and a store dedicated to selling everything to do with truffles) and even street shopping from carts laden with spices and trinkets fashioned like the famous Venetian mask.
We spent a lovely evening in Piazza San Marco– referred to as “The Drawing Room of Europe”, probably because this port used to be where travelers would first alight. Flanked by the St Mark’s Basilica and the iconic clock tower that shows the time, the signs of Zodiac and even the phases of the moon, this is one of the most famous squares in Venice. There are two legendary cafes on either side of the Piazza, but you can walk into the alleys leading away from the square for more affordable options to grab a bite.
Day Trips from Venice – Murano, Burano, Italy
The next day spent half a day each in the cities of Murano and Burano. These little archipelagos are great for half day trips from Venice. Murano, originally a fishing port, is famous for its glasswork – be sure to take your time exploring the factories and buying souvenirs. Burano rose to importance in the 14th-15th century for its lacework that was imported all over Europe. The houses stand brightly painted, in neat rows, quite like the flat boxes of water colours that we used to buy eagerly at the start of a school semester (I am told that there is even certain science to deciding which colors can be used where).
Venice –> Croatia–> Milan
Last stop, Milan. A stark contrast to its southern cousin Rome, Milan is a built on the template of any other business capital, with the added edginess that comes from wearing the crown of ‘fashion capital’
Our first evening in Milan we were lucky to catch a magnificent open-air concert in the Duomo Square, conducted by Riccardo Chailly. Later that evening after the crowds cleared I went pay obeisance at the World’s Oldest Mall, Galleria Vittorio Emmanuel. 30 minutes of enthusiastic picture taking and gazing at orante window displays quickly gave way to feeling sorry for myself, followed by binge eating gelato. That was how we discovered Amorino, one of the best places for Gelato in Italy – an entire poem in a cone!
The next day we drove out of the city to Lake Trento. By then I had taken ill, my most vivid memories being flashes of bright blue – water, mountain and sky all in perfect harmony.
Eventually it turned out I had contracted some kind of measles. Possibly in Rome, what with its constant ebb of human tide. Inspite of two treacherous weeks of illness, I am still in love with the city; I echo Audrey Hepburn’s sentiments, Rome truly is unforgettable, and I too will cherish my visit here in memory.