Friday, February 10, 2017

Italy 2016

In October of 2016 Michelle and I decided on a great way to celebrate our 32nd anniversary. We celebrated it early, and in Italy.  It took a couple of years of saving, but we began planning early and started making reservations in March.  I'll say it up front: there are a number of places you'll want to visit in Italy and several of them require reservations well in advance. Others require tickets that you can get on the spot, but you'll want to know the requirements in advance.  To make the most of a trip like this, I recommend doing your research up front. Michelle handled most of this for us and we had so much more fun as a result.  Tickets were so important to have in some places that I'm using the abbreviation AT in this post for the places we had advance tickets and found it helpful, not counting planes, trains and lodging.

We started by taking the bus from Albany to New York City, then the LIRR out to JFK airport.  From JFK we flew Emirates Airlines directly to Milan.  Then in Milan we took the train from the airport to the Milan Central train station.  From there we walked to our apartment not far from the station. All our accommodations on this trip were at Airbnb's and they couldn't have been better.  In every case we paid about what we would have for a hotel, but instead got something closer to an entire apartment.  In many cases with laundry facilities.

Once in Milan we walked to the Milan Cathedral. We didn't have tickets for this one and we didn't want to wait in the two lines for tourists. So we agreed not to take pictures and reverently went in the side reserved for worshipers.  We sat quietly in the cathedral and enjoyed it in a way closer to its intended purpose.

After leaving the cathedral we took a Metro train to a smaller church named Santa Maria delle Grazie.  This unassuming little church is where daVinci's "Last Supper" was painted.  Thanks to tickets (AT) purchased far in advance we were able to go in and see this masterpiece.  It is amazing to see, in person, this work that we've only seen in books for so many years.  It was a great experience.

We left to go back to our apartment, and soon found that the train drivers were on strike!  Initially we thought we would just walk back, but soon realized it would be too far, so with the help of a tobacconist with very good English we found a (very packed) streetcar that got us home.

The next day we boarded an early train to Venice and arrived mid-day. We dropped our bags at the apartment and walked over to St. Mark's square and Basilica. We toured St. Marks (AT), then in the evening we went to Chiesa di San Vidal and listened to a beautiful performance of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" (AT).  It was gorgeous.

In the morning we met our apartment-mates.  In Venice we were in a two-room apartment, of which one room was ours.  The couple from the other apartment was heading off on a cruise, so they gave us their day-pass for the vaporetto.  We used that to scoot around the islands for the rest of the morning.  Then in the afternoon we boarded the train to Florence.

Once in Florence we found our way to our apartment to drop our bags, then walked to the downtown area just for a quick glance... and gelato.

The next day was Monday and it was the first of many climbs we did in Italy. We were at Brunelleschi's dome by 8:30 AM to climb to the top (AT).  This is the dome on top of the Florence Cathedral. It's quite a climb to the top, but you are rewarded with a great view when you get there.  It was good to climb early in the morning while the air was still cool.

After climbing down from the dome we walked over to the Baptistery of St. John.  You can read more about that here, but especially read about the doors.  Since you weren't there, I'm including here a photo-sphere I took inside.

After the baptistery, we went to the Duomo museum (AT) and saw the actual doors from the baptistery along with a host of other beautiful pieces of art and scupture.  At this point it was our appointed time to climb Giotto's Campanile (bell tower), where we were rewarded with another great view.

At this point in the day we didn't have firm plans so we accidentally made the best impromptu decision. We walked over and visited the Basilica di Santa Croce. We didn't know it, but inside this single Basilica are the tombs of Galileo, Ghiberti, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Rossini, and others, as well as funerary monuments to other Florentines such as Dante, Marconi and Fermi.  The tombs and monuments were amazing and there was an equal amount of stunning artwork as well.

On Tuesday were were up bright and early to be in line for the Galleria dell'Academia (AT), which houses Michelangelo's statue of David. We were among the first in the door and went straight to the statue and so had a bit of time there with very few people before the crowd grew.

After the Galleria, we made another impromptu decision that turned out to be fun.  We boarded a bus that would take us back closer to the center of town.  But we decided that since our ticket was good for 90 minutes, to just ride the bus and see where it went.  It went way out of town into the countryside before stopping for a few minutes and then returning.  We still got where we wanted to go, but we got to see the true Italian countryside as well.  The bus dropped us off near the Pitti Palace, which we toured next.  This building is not terribly attractive from the outside, but the inside is a palace in every sense of the word.  I've included another photo-sphere here to give you an idea.

From the Pitti Palace we took the bus over to Piazzale Michelangelo where you get a great view of Florence.

Next we walked and rode the bus to the Uffizi museum.  This museum is filled with so much art and sculpture that you could spend days there.  We used a "Rick Steves" podcast as our tour guide and it took us through the museum stopping at the most important pieces without dwelling too long in any one place.  This got us through in a reasonable amount of time without wondering if we missed something important.  At this point we were quite tired so we went back to our apartment and found a restaurant nearby where we had Steak Florentine (of course).

Wednesday morning we checked out and headed to the train and rode to Pisa. In Pisa we did what everyone does: visited the leaning tower. Once again, we climbed to the top (AT).

This was just a stop along the way, though, as we were headed to La Spezia.  This is a town you may not have heard of but it is the gateway to the Cinque Terre, which was our destination for Thursday. Wednesday was the 26th and two earthquakes hit Italy this day, but in a region far from where we were, so we were unaffected.

Cinque Terre is a group of five small coastal towns that are connected by roads and hiking trails. We had heard it was a beautiful hike and we were not disappointed.  Even though two shorter sections were closed due to rockfall, the longer sections were open and we had the most (strenuous and) beautiful hike imaginable.  This was partly because the weather was perfect. A cloudless blue sky, a gentle sea breeze off the ocean to cool you down as you climb, and post-card-perfect scenery.  This was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. Michelle's FitBit recorded 33,325 steps, 14.27 miles, and 210 flights of stairs for this day!


So many stairs. So many.

This is how narrow the trail got at one point!
As wide as that one stone, and it drops of precipitously.

Sunset in Riomaggiore

Needless to say on Friday we needed a down day.  We relaxed in the apartment until about noon and then met our train to Rome.  When we got to Rome, we found our apartment, but then we were hungry. The apartment was very close to the Vatican, so it should not be surprising that the restaurant we stumbled upon was Osteria dei Pontefici.  What a great place.  The waiter spoke no English and we spoke no Italian, so there was much pointing and a bit of surprise in our orders, but it was delicious.

Saturday morning we headed to the Villa Borghese.  While the whole park around the Villa was beautiful, it was the Borghese Gallery that we were headed to. Advance tickets are a must here.  We saw several people turned away.  It would be sad to travel thousands of miles for a once-in-a-lifetime visit and miss something like this. The gallery had amazing artwork, but it was the sculptures that we really enjoyed.

After the gallery, we spontaneously decided to rent and ride a "Bici Pincio". This little pedal buggy - with electric assist - was a blast.

From the Villa we walked down to the Spanish Steps. These are famous, but their fame brings crowds and they were too crowded to really be enjoyable.  From the steps we took the subway to the Trevi Fountain and found the same.  Massive crowds that really detracted from the enjoyment. We then took the subway again to the Piazza della Repubblica before taking a bus back to our apartment for the night.

Sunday we planned to go to the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, the Roman Forum and many of the sites in the area.  We took the bus to the train station where our plan was to take the Metro to the Colosseum. When we got off the bus we were met with an enormous crush of people trying to get ON our bus. We couldn't understand why, but we got off and headed to the Metro, only to find it closed.  It turns out that in the night there had been another earthquake and the Metro was closed for a safety inspection.  Boarding a bus looked like it would take forever, so we just walked to the Colosseum.

Then we walked all. over. town. The sites were amazing and we walked ourselves to death. We ended the day by visiting the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano.

Monday was our last full day in Italy.  We woke up and headed straight to the Vatican Museum (AT) which was a short walk from our apartment.  This is an amazing museum, and there was an enormous crowd waiting to get in.  After touring the museum we visited the Sistine Chapel.  The chapel is beautiful, but our memories are all we took out because they don't allow photography in the chapel.  After the chapel, we visited St. Peter's Basilica, which is an amazingly large and beautiful building.  Among other things here we saw Michelangelo's "The Pieta".  We saw a lot of sculptures on this trip, but this one was one of the best. Michelangelo truly was a master.

From St. Peter's we took the bus to the neighborhood of the Pantheon.  This too is an amazing building to visit.  At this point though, we were tired; especially our feet. We were fortunate enough to find a bench we could sit on and listen to a podcast about the building.  After resting a while, we walked over to Piazza Navona, which is a nice public square.  In this piazza we found a restaurant/gelateria named Tre Scalini. Here we purchased the most delicious gelato treat called a Tartufo.  I do not think we could visit Rome again without buying and devouring one of these.

To end the day, and our stay in Rome, we took the bus to Castel Sant'Angelo. We climbed (again) to the top and made it there just before sunset. We were able to watch a beautiful sunset from the top and see the lights of Rome come on.  It was a perfect ending to our trip.

St. Peter's Basilica at twilight.

On Tuesday the hostess for our apartment had arranged a taxi for us to get to the train station.  We had an early train and it turns out that since it was November 1st, it was a holiday in Italy (All Saints Day) and the buses and trains were not running on normal schedules.  The taxi had to take the long way to the train station because the earthquake had damaged one of the bridges we would have taken. But we got to the station with plenty of time. From there it was the train to Milan (at 300Km/hr (186 mph)!), then another train to the airport. The plane back to JFK, then three more trains and we were back in Albany.

If you're looking for a way to celebrate your 32nd anniversary, I recommend this itinerary.

I would make 3 recommendations if you're planning a trip like this:
  1. Make as many advance reservations as you can. It may mean you call Italy and talk haltingly to an Italian agent, but it's worth it. Skype has cheap rates for calling abroad.
  2. The Roma Pass.  In Rome this gave us unlimited use of busses and the Metro as well as free or discounted admission to many sites.  Well worth it.
  3. Only take a backpack and a small carry-on bag.  You'll appreciate the mobility.  Laundry facilities in our apartments made it possible to carry fewer clothes and travel light.

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