Banner
E-mail Print PDF

Chan Cham Perou

Central Italy   —    On the doorstep of the Mezzogiorno: Tuscany.

There are soft round hills all around: we are in the greenest region of Italy and where activities center on wine and olives. 

Forever the city of the arts

Florence, Tuscany’s capital that is fed by the River Arno, is a monument of the Renaissance and has a heart that is rooted in its history and medieval character. In this world capital of the arts, we are continually reminded of exceptional artists like Michelangelo, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci and Donatello, the visionary architect Brunelleschi, and also poets such as Dante and politicians like Machiavelli.

Its historic center, which is surprisingly compact, is easily explored on foot. Start with the Duomo, a true architectural achievement, and its campanile and the baptistery, which has the famous Gates of Paradise.

Don’t hesitate to climb the 463 stairs leading to the summit of the Duomo’s Cupola, a masterpiece designed by Brunelleschi. It is not only worth the view, but it will allow you to understand the spectacular architectural tour de force that was realized by the architect when he built the cupola in 1463, which has an unusually heavy self-supporting dome, the largest of its time.

One has to wander around the maze of narrow streets to discover the other treasures of this city, which were almost entirely reconstructed during the Renaissance: its palaces, churches, markets, and famous squares.

Palaces like the Palazzo Vecchio, the ancient palace owned by the Medici, which is along the Piazza Della Signoria, and the Uffizi Gallery, which is one of the most beautiful art museums in the world.

Churches like Santa Croce have frescoes by Giotto, which is where Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli’s tombs all can be found, or the Santa Mario Novella, which is a magnificent Gothic church with numerous frescoes and works of art.

Squares such as the Piazza Della Signoria contain galleries of sculptures (which include both copies and the originals) that commemorate historical events in the city’s history. The most well-known include the statue of David by Michelangelo – the original, a monumental yet delicate work of art carved by the artist in 1504 is safeguarded in the nearby Galleria dell’Accademia on Ricasoli St. - and the Rape of the Sabine Women and the Fountain of Neptune.

If you have any free time, follow the River Arno to discover the famous and traditional Ponte Vecchio, which has jewelers and art dealers’ shops built directly in its sides. And walk in the footsteps of Catherine de Medici and Penelope Cruz and visit the Farmacia Santa Maria Novella, which is truly the most beautiful pharmacy in the world. Frescoes decorate its walls and it offers a fantastic view of the secular convent cloister of the Dominicans, who created this institution 400 years ago. Complexion cream, perfume, candles, herbal tea and more cover the shelves with packaging that has a recognizable logo. It is a bit expensive, but very unique!

Another famous landmark 

Pisa and its leaning tower! This famous leaning bell tower is in fact part of a spectacular architectural grouping on Campo dei Miracoli: the prestigious Duomo with its pulpit that was sculpted by the famous architect Pisano, its campanile, the Baptistery that combines Roman and Gothic styles, the Campo Santo, a monumental cemetery, a long, early Christian building with vast arcades that contains many tombs.

This city was an important ancient Roman trade city and also the birthplace of Galileo, who used the tower to experiment with his theory on the speed of falling objects.

Yes, there is an enormous amount of tourist buses around! Yes, thousands of selfie enthusiasts will be entertaining themselves in front of the Tower of Pisa. There is not much else to see in Pisa. But who wants to come to Italy and not see this famous monument? Yes, it is worth it to brave the hordes of tourists and to queue up at the ticket counter to be able to admire this magnificent sight, which today appears to be built in the middle of nowhere.

On the wine route

Let’s continue towards Umbria and follow the picturesque wine route along Lake Trasimeno, which is bordered by wineries.

Back to the Middle Ages

One short stop to stretch our legs was, as it turns out, more than that, and definitely worth the view. A small, traditional medieval village with large fortified walls and alleys overflowing with plants and a well-preserved and maintained Palazzo Municipale: this is Corciano. It is one of the nicest tiny towns in the region.

Perugia

After a copious rustic lunch, we reached Perugia, a charming hilltop Etruscan city.

Its small, historic town centre shows off a lovely collection of gothic architecture, with the Piazza IV Novembre in the middle. This is also where the Fontana Maggiore flows, which was sculpted by Pisano in the XIII century. Also in this centre is the Palazzo dei Priori, which is the house of the local government.

But Perugia has also become famous for its “Baci” chocolate. Everyone recognizes these famous Italian “kisses” that are wrapped in a love message written on the trademark metallic paper and blue lettering. These delicacies have been produced in Perugia for more than 90 years. Needless to say, a taste test is in order! And why not take along some provisions for the road and for friends, too?

Assisi

We soon reach Assisi, which is graciously stretched across the western flank of Mount Subasio between the cypress and olive trees, located at the foot of the Basilica of St. Francis.

The basilica, built in 1253, consists of a lower and upper church. It has frescoes by Lorenzetti, Giotto and Martini, who also designed the remarkable stained glass windows.

It is also worth strolling down the narrow and steep streets of Assisi, which are filled with boutiques and restaurants. Behind these are some lovely courtyards where bougainvilleas, grape vines, laurels and geraniums happily grow.

Tracing the ghosts of Pompeii

We are heading south, towards Campania, which is the most populous region in Italy and where important traces of the Greek and Roman civilizations can still be found: Herculaneum, Paestum, Pompeii. We will stop at the latter site a few kilometers from Naples to discover the Roman city that was covered with stones and tons of ashes 2,000 years ago and where buildings, frescoes, mosaics and sculptures emerge from the earth as silent witnesses to the event.

A good part of the vestiges of this sumptuous Roman city, which was buried by an enormous eruption of Mount Vesuvio in 79 A.D., can be seen during a guided visit. Follow the Via dell’Abbondanza, the main road that winds through the city, which was once bordered by shops and taverns, and where the wheels of carriages dug grooves that are still visible as testament to the street’s heavy traffic. Discover the covered market, the gymnasium, temples and large villas that were also evidence of the hectic and rich life of this thriving Roman city of 25,000 inhabitants, obliterated in only a few minutes without warning.

Along one of the most beautiful roads in the country

After a stop at the prestigious seaside resort of Sorrento for a gargantuan lunch enjoyed in the middle of a garden full of citrus and orange trees, we drove along a coastal road that overhangs the sea. We are now on the Amalfi Coast. This is a spectacular itinerary between the Gulf of Naples and Salerno, with one of the most celebrated and picturesque panoramas in the world.

Wineries and orchards are planted on terraces close to the towns and the coast, while herds graze in pastures located higher on the hills. Little towns hanging on the cliff with white and colored houses, restaurants and hotels offer stunning views. They are the rewards often obtained after climbing or dashing down a few abrupt flights of stairs.

Then, a short stop in Positano for a few photos: this is a village that hangs on a natural cliff that will leave you breathless!

Amalfi, which lies at the mouth of a deep ravine, is our next destination. Its stunning St. Andrew’s Cathedral (Duomo) blends many architectural styles: Norman and Byzantine on its exterior and late-Baroque in its interior. Small, winding and steep roads that are narrow and require some energy mean a stop is in order to enjoy a gelato al limone. Limoncello and many other lemon-scented objects are on our list of souvenirs: soap, candy and sugar crystals, etc. This is the main town on the coast and the one where many dream of retiring some day…provided they could afford it!

And a fabulous island…

After so much beauty, we needed nothing less than paradise: Capri.

Yes, Capri overflows with tourists! Yes, it is outrageously expensive! Chic and famous designer boutiques, perfumes, jewelry, great restaurants and hotels thrive and overlap with one another as proof of the wealth of the inhabitants of this paradise.

The island, which is 6 by 3 kilometers in size, floats on the blue waters of the Mediterranean and is literally bewitching. And we understand that its savage beauty once seduced many Roman emperors including Augustus, and millionaires, such as Mr. Krupp, who built a sumptuous villa on a belvedere with a long pathway that leads down to the sea (Via Krupp), as well as lovely gardens, from which we have stunning views of the sea and on the Faraglioni, which are huge limestone crags.

Leaving Marina Grande, where many boutiques offer clothing and souvenirs at more reasonable prices, a boat takes us on a tour around the island. We also see up-close the Fraglioni, the grotto with white stalactites, the famous Blue Grotto, whose ceiling really shines with a bluish light, the grotto with green waters, the magnificent white villas built on top of abrupt cliffs, and more.

We also discover the Little Mermaid, a small sculpture that from the height of its perch reminds onlookers of the legend that says that mermaids who attracted men of power, artists and poets of all kinds once inhabited this island.

We return to Naples by boat for a better look at its splendid bay and a city tour, which gave us an initial taste of this populated city, the 3rd largest in the country: it is a bit rebellious, messy and of course is the capital of pizza. The famous Neapolitan pizza is on the menu for a dinner, enjoyed with a view of the bay in the background. It is a dream setting! And great pizza as well!

Versailles in Italy

In Caserta, le Palazzo Reale (Palace of Caserta) is a must. With its colossal baroque architecture, this royal residence of the Bourbon of Naples, which was once meant to compete with Versailles, is part of the UNESCO World Heritage list.

A monumental palace, with 143 windows on its façade, 1,200 rooms and 34 stairways, it is the world’s largest royal residence – and it took 28 years to build.

The perspective of the architecture reinforces the impression of grandeur as soon as we enter the vestibule, where a monumental stairway leads to the royal apartments. Walls, ceilings, floors, columns and statues are all marble. Walls decorated with frescoes, works of art and the gold-painted ceilings all contribute to an incredible ambiance of richness and opulence.

Its 120-hectare garden has lawns and cascades, fountains, fishponds and a Swan Lake: it is a green haven.

Star Wars enthusiasts will likely recognize the Theed Palace, which can be seen in many of the movies in the series.

Rome

What can we say about Rome, this city of splendor and Dolce Vita? So many books, guides and films have all trumpeted how beautiful its neighborhoods, treasures, work of arts and cuisine are!

We only spent three days here; three days to roam the various districts, squares, fountains, monuments, markets, not to mention its restaurants, cafés and Gelaterias. Not enough to see and taste everything, but enough to make us feel like coming back for a longer stay!

Eternal city

To get the most out of our time, we adopted a systematic approach. Our first day will be spent in Ancient Rome, starting with the heart of the ancient city, the Capitol Hill that dominates the Forum, the Imperial Forums and the Coliseum. Here, the meaning of Rome as the Eternal City is truly encompassed.

Both the inside and outside of the Coliseum, Rome’s universal symbol, should be visited to realize what a colossal work of architecture it is, as well as to feel the remarkable prowess it must have taken to erect such a building, which was able to hold 55,000 spectators at the time.

A little further on is the Imperial Forums, which have a maze of vestiges, ruins, stumps of columns, parts of statues and fragments of basilicas, temples and arches. They form an unprecedented grouping in a monumental centre that requires very little imagination to testify to life - private and public and political and religious - at the time.

It is also essential to climb the heights of the Palatine Hill, the sacred hill and mythical site where Rome was founded. This is where most of the emperors resided for more than 400 years and from which one can enjoy a great perspective of the ancient Roman Circus Maximus.

Our next destination is the Capitol and where National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of a unified Italy, stands. The white color of its marble vividly contrasts with the terra cotta of the buildings around, as does its grandeur – just imagine, the mustache of only one of the horseman is a whole meter wide – which earns it the reputation for causing numerous Italians to “fall out of love.”

Facing the monument on Via del Corso is the Palazzo Venezia, which was Mussolini’s house with the famous balcony where he made many public appearances.

The Museums of the Capitol are ancient palaces with rich collections and are worth a visit if you have the time. Nearby, it is vital to pause for a few minutes in front of the Trajan Column. With a height of 30 meters, its 2,500 characters that are sculpted in high relief on its shaft create a spiral decoration that expands from its base to the summit, thus compensating for the effects of perspective. The Column tells the story of the many battles that led to the Dacia Victory between the years 101 and 106. It’s very impressive!

A Baroque City

Our second day was spent exploring Rome’s public places, where you can really experience the Dolce Vita. A stroll through palaces and churches, fountains, public squares and markets is also an exploration of the daily life of Romans.

We started with the Piazza di Spagna, home of the beautiful Spanish steps that connect the square to the Church of Trinita dei Monti, and its famous Fontana della Barcaccia, sculpted by Bernini, father of the more famous Bernini.

Of course we couldn’t avoid seeing the Trevi Fountain, the largest baroque fountain in the city and the most famous. Even with scaffoldings that obscured it (it was being restored), the horses drawing Neptune’s cart at its center are still very impressive.

The loveliest baroque place in Rome, and I must admit my favourite, is Piazza Navona with its palaces, churches and most of all, its famous central fountain.

Surrounded by cafés, including the celebrated Tre Scalini (where you can enjoy the best tartuffo in the country), the square houses are in fact three baroque fountains. The most beautiful and imposing one, the Fountain of the Four Rivers (the Nile, the Ganges, the Danube and the Rio de la Plata), is one of Bernini’s masterpieces. It was made even more famous a few years ago by the movie “Angels and Demons,” based on Dan Brown’s bestseller.

We made one more stop at the Piazza Della Rotonda to admire the Pantheon, a true architectural masterpiece with its imposing dome, still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.

The last place on our itinerary for the day was the Piazza del Popolo (People’s Square), which is another large square in the city with an Egyptian obelisk standing at its centre, three churches and two baroque fountains.

Shrine of Christianity

What better way to bring this trip to a close in this venerable shrine of Christianity than a visit to the Vatican?

We are told that since Pope Francis I was chosen, crowds have significantly grown. We certainly saw proof of that!

That being said, the crowd management is relatively well done. Groups of people move almost freely inside St. Peter’s Basilica, surrounded by 140 statues of saints, and movement is free in the gardens of the papal palace as well. It becomes more complicated inside the Sistine Chapel, the Renaissance masterpiece, where everyone’s eyes are trained on the ceiling and looking at Michelangelo’s famous frescoes. This is not a place for a person with claustrophobia.

Angels and demons... Again?

This could be the theme of our last night in Rome, experienced in the popular and buzzing Trastevere neighborhood which has everything from restaurants and cafés to bars next to calmer houses, all standing on narrow and sinuous roads.

Our last dinner, which was copious as they always are in Italy, was enjoyed along with the dark rhythms and lyrics of a flamenco-Italian musical group.

Later that night, we took one last look at the Arno and some of its illuminated buildings, the Rococo Court of Cassation, the Hadrian Mausoleum that was transformed into a fortress (Castel Sant’Angelo) where on the roof, Sant’ Angelo extends his wings, facing the ponte Sant’Angelo, which is lined with other angel statues.

Those were the last images of our very memorable and enjoyable trip to Italy. We can’t wait to go back!

Arrivederci!

Christiane Théberge

This trip is the second part of a trip to Italy – the first part covered Northern Italy. The trip was taken with a Traditours group.

 


 


Tuscany's hills


The Duomo, Florence

Ponte Vecchio, Florence

Pisa

On the wine route

Fontana Maggiore, Perugia

Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi

Assisi

Pompeii with the Vesuvio in the background

Via dell’Abbondanza, Pompeii

Amalfi

Capri

The Faraglioni, Capri

Blue Grotto, Capri 

The Coliseum 

Inside the Coliseum

Imperial Forums

Mussolini' balcony

Fontana della Barcaccia, Piazza di Spagna

Trévi Fountain (detail)

Piazza Navona, Fountain of the four Rivers 

Sistine Chapel

Court of Cassation


Castel Sant'Angelo

 

 


  

 

Back