Our night at the highway hotel in Naples was less than pleasant, but we had a decent breakfast and ventured out on the 230km drive to Rome. Because we had opted not to take the highways, we drove through tiny towns and villages that gave us an interesting glimpse into Italian life. Most roads were narrow and very poorly maintained. I started to worry about the undercarriage of our rental car, as we had chosen not to get extra insurance. We drove through very poor cities at the foot of huge mountain ranges where immigrants from Eastern Europe and Africa tried to wash our windows and sell us packages of kleenex at every stoplight. Prostitutes dotted the roadside the way I assumed we would see fruit stands. Each girl had a foldable chair and sat in her designated area waiting patiently for the truck drivers who had diverted off the highways. We saw many men pulling over without a second thought (It turns out that despite the mainly Catholic population, Italy has legalized prostitution as long as it does not take place within a brothel).
Our accommodation was just outside of the city, and once we got settled and changed, we hopped on the subway and rode thirty minutes into the city center to begin our whirlwind tour of Rome. The subway brought us directly to the Colloseum, which was as massive as you imagine and full of three times as many tourists. We had lucked upon yet another very hot day with clear skies, and the lineup to get in was massive. We chose to buy the Roma Pass, which entitles you to 48 hours of perks like free transportation, one free museum entrance, and no lineups for attractions. We ran back over to the Colloseum and quickly got in (avoiding heat stroke and a two hour wait was well worth the extra money). There was not a ton to actually ‘see’ inside, and there was far less information posted around than I expected, but when in Rome, it’s something that can’t be missed!
Rome, the capitol city of Italy, was founded in 753 BC (according to the myth of Romulus and Remus). It is the 14th most visited city in the world, and we definitely felt this as soon as we entered the downtown area. We left the Colosseum and its hordes of tourists and spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the Pantheon, Forum, and the Altara della Patria.
Our evening ended with a coin tossed in the Trevi fountain (which is said will bring you back to Rome one day. Fun fact: around €3,000 is collected from the fountain every night in high season) and a romantic sunset on the Spanish Steps.
Because our trip was booked last minute, it was a bit of a struggle to prebook tickets to the sights we wanted to see (which is apparently completely necessary even in low season). We had tickets to the Vatican museums scheduled for the awkward time of 11:30am, so we woke up early and took the subway to a nearby area of town with a pretty piazza and a surprise clothing market. While the piazza was a bit of a letdown, I did find a beautiful new shirt and some postcards!
The Vatican area was the biggest tourist trap I had ever seen, and as we walked towards the museum we saw countless people being lured in by ‘Vatican employees’ selling ‘VIP’ tickets and offering rides to the ‘other entrance’. We waited until our designated time and were finally ushered in to the museum after security more strict than most airports.
I was incredibly surprised that cameras were allowed inside the museums and quickly began snapping away. Everything was so gold! So grand! So bejewelled! The museum itself holds pieces from Raphael to Da Vinci, Carravagio to Corregio. The Gallery of Maps was one of the most astounding things I have ever seen, and there was a huge amount of non-religious work. I can only imagine (and hope) that the Pope must spend hours admiring all of these treasures once the tourists leave!
The most famous work here is of course the Sistine Chapel in the Apostolic Palace, a huge room located under the museum. As German writer Goethe said, “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”
The chapel truly is a place of quiet contemplation and prayer, more than anywhere else I think i’ve been in Europe. But there were so many people it was hard to breathe let alone appreciate the art. No photos are allowed here, thankfully, but I will stick to the pictures online when I want to appreciate Michaelangelo’s frescos rather than braving the crowds.
Vatican City was exactly what you see on TV: hundreds of chairs in front of a gigantic church surrounded by normal businesses within a wall. Unfortunately the Pope was in Georgia while we were there, so we toured through St Peter’s Basilica before leaving to find lunch.
Eating out in Italy can be pricey, especially around areas like the Vatican, but we found a great traditional Italian buffet for €10 and had a relaxing meal and glass of wine before our next stop: the Castel Sant’Angelo. This castle-turned-museum used to be the highest building in Rome, which meant gorgeous views over the entire city for us! It has had many incarnations since it’s building around 135 AD, originally intended as a mausoleum but most recently used as a Papal residence.
Our action packedtime in Rome came to a close with a cup of gelato in the piazza watching an Italian Michael Jackson impersonator dance his heart out.
We left on the long journey to Florence early in the morning (after finding a nasty scratch on our car from the parking lot). Our first stop was the town of Perugia, a university town in the hills of Umbria. I had heard of Perugia only from the infamous Amanda Knox trial but recalled noticing beautiful scenery on the news, so we stopped for a couple of hours to walk through the streets and take in the views. A small organic market was set up beside the university where we bought a big bag of delicious apples and had a picnic overlooking the valley below.
Our next stop was Siena, a Tuscan city known for the Palio horse race which takes place twice a year. We looked through cool vintage shops and delis before coming across the Piazza del Campo, a magnificent square in the center of town with sloped ground perfect for relaxing on hot summer days. Evening was coming quickly and we still had a ways to go to get to Florence, so we headed back onto the road.
Florence is the capital of Tuscany and holds more art, culture, fashion, amazing food and history than you could enjoy in an entire lifetime. We arrived late in the evening after a very long day and were greeted by our Air B&B host whose home we would spend the next three days sharing. He spoke no English, but our room was comfortable and clean (and 45 minutes by bus from the city center). We rushed out to find a bottle of wine and a bad takeaway pizza.
It was an easy bus ride into the city center, passing the rougher parts of town but getting a good feel for the city itself. I had been disappointed that we couldn’t buy tickets for the art galleries as they were all sold out, but the day we arrived was free museum day, which meant massive lineups but no cost!
We explored the Palazzo Pitti, a Medici palace which now houses some of the best art, costume and porcelain in the world. There was a fabulous Karl Lagerfeld photo exhibit, and our free tickets included entrance to the Boboli gardens which were a peaceful retreat from the busy city.
By the time we made our way to the Uffizi gallery, the massive lineup had died down enough that we decided to wait. After only a few minutes we were able to enter and walk among the Da Vinci, Botticelli, Raphael, Michelangelo, Carravagio, Dürer and Rembrandt pieces (among thousands of others). I was able to stand as close as I wanted to the Birth of Venus while tourists took selfies around me (I must be in a lot of photo albums by now).
The sights of Florence greeted us on every street we went down, including the Ponte Vecchio, Santa Croce, Baptistry and Medici Chapel.
We also stumbled upon a leather school where we were able to watch as students from all over the world hand sewed purses and belts.
The food in Florence, and Tuscany in general, was amazing. We drooled over every stall in the Central Market and ate fresh pasta prepared with whatever sauces we wanted, topped with a heaping pile of freshly grated parmesan. Pizza, while not as good as in Naples, was best at a small and crowded restaurant called Gusto which has been featured on many tv programs all over the world. Paired with the best table wine served in a plastic cup you can imagine, the Margherita with fresh fiore de latte cannot be beat.
On we continue towards Pisa!
-Chelsea & Ben