Italy immediately brings to mind Romans, the Colosseum, gladiators and Julius Caesar.
A year ago, my family suggested that Italy we must visit. A few lines of communication went back and forth between with our travel agent. Our itinerary was planned to near perfection and before long, we were in New Delhi, boarding an Alitalia flight. There were big smiles plastered on our faces for we were headed to Rome.
Fully immersed in the ages of yore
Some eight hours later and after the usual drill at immigration and customs, we reached Hotel Mecenate Palace. We were greeted with warm ‘buongiorno,’ wishes — Italian for ‘good morning’.
Not ones to lose time, we quickly freshened up, ate breakfast and set about on the first stop on our itinerary — the famous Colosseum. It was hot and there were tourists from across the world queuing at the entrance. We patiently awaited our turn and soon, as we entered, I couldn’t help but immerse myself in the ages when this monument was built.
The Colosseum was built in 72 CE by Emperor Vespasian, and it took eight years for craftsmen to complete the mega structure. It was officially called the Flavian Amphitheatre and could house a staggering 80,000 spectators. We walked in circles covering every inch of this magnificent edifice and snapped photographs from all possible angles. It felt as if we were in a time capsule of sorts.
As we exited the area, there were street artistes in period Roman attire posing with tourists for pictures. On the outside, we could also see the gladiator arena in ruins, having survived several centuries. The Colosseum looked even more imposing from here, located as it was in the heart of Rome.
Our next stop was the Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore, which was located close to where we were staying. It was a magnificent church completed in 1743 CE. They’d used fifth century mosaics, preserved Byzantine era paintings and sculptures of different saints. The Church, in particular, was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. This location also boasted the highest bell tower in all of Rome.
The Vatican was a site to behold
Our itinerary on day two commenced with the Vatican. We’d always heard so much about the Pope, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel and here we were about to experience at least some part of it, in person.
As our taxi drove closer, we could see the Basilica’s colossal dome in the distance. The cab stopped a short distance ahead and we began walking over the Ponte Sant’Angelo pedestrian bridge. It spans the Tiber’s western bank separating the Vatican. The latter comes in as the world’s smallest country measuring all of 0.19 square miles. The Vatican City is governed as an absolute monarchy with the Pope as its head of state.
As you enter the Basilica, you are awestruck by its sheer enormity. It features among the largest churches in the whole world. I, for one, was spellbound by the statue of St. Peter; it looked majestic.
The La Pieta Statue is a masterpiece among Renaissance sculptures crafted by Michelangelo Buonarroti. The Tomb of Pope Alexander VII is a sculptural monument. As you walk along the interconnected corridors admiring the art adorned walls and ceiling, it transports you to a different era. You come across the inimitable works of Michelangelo such as The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Planets, The Sacrifice of Noah and The Crucifixion of St. Peter.
The Madonna of Foligno and the Hall of Constantine are famous works attributed to the noted painter Raphael. There were myriad paintings and frescoes; colours ran riot across the walls and ceilings. However, these visual treats are still only the initial ones; the tempo begins building towards the crescendo and alongside, security too got tighter we headed towards the grandest — the Sistine Chapel.
As you enter the almost elusive chapel, your eyes are met with unmatched grandeur. There are frescoes depicting the life of Moses and the life of Christ by Sandra Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Cosimo Rosselli and several other Renaissance painters. Michelangelo painted The Last Judgement on the sanctuary wall. On the ceiling was painted nine scenes from the book of Genesis; here The Creation of Adam is considered the most renowned.
It was forbidden to shoot pictures inside the chapel. The thought that crossed my mind was this was the very place where a Pope is chosen. This vital role is entrusted on a group of cardinals and the event is termed the Papal election. We caught a glimpse of the address box in the Basilica — the Pope addresses gatherings on important Catholic festivals from this pulpit.
Florence seemed to exist in an altogether different time period
We awoke to a sunny morning on day three and following breakfast, we headed to the railway station. We were Florence bound and the brief train journey would only take 90 minutes aboard the Italo – Italy’s high-speed trains. This train journey sure was an experience in itself.
Our hotel in Florence was a short walk away from the railway station. We were going to be spending the next three days at Hotel Roma located on Piazza Santa Maria Novella.
The Medici family is a prominent one in Florence and they were credited with building the first bank in Europe in 1397 CE. They were the wealthiest bankers at the time and their influence on Florence was unmissable. Artists and sculptors flourished under their patronage.
In the evening, we explored nearby areas on foot. It seemed as though the city existed in an altogether different time period. We were in admiration of the architectural styles and the beauty of the narrow cobbled streets.
The following morning commenced with a vineyard visit where we received a brief insight into the nuances of wine making. Thereafter, we went on to visit San Gimignano, a Tuscan hill town renowned for its medieval architecture. It is also acclaimed as the town of fine towers. Besides shopping for Italian clay crockery, tuscany shoes and lavender, a visit to San Gimignano is not complete without sampling gelato, a popular frozen dessert similar to ice-cream.
From here, it was onward to Pisa. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is a campanile or freestanding bell tower of Pisa’s cathedral. It is known worldwide for its nearly four-degree lean – a result of an unstable foundation. Tourists throng to this place and attempt photo illusions on their DSLRs and smart phones.
We walked around the structure and stood there in admiration. It truly was befitting of its status as one of the wonders of the world.
The Cinque Terre and Mediterranean delights
The next day commenced with a visit to the Italian Riviera. The Cinque Terre comprises five villages, namely, Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. It is a protected world heritage site and also comprises a national park. The trip started at Manarola and a short train ride to Riomaggiore later, we climbed aboard a speed boat which ferried us to Monterosso – a site well known for its beautiful beach.
Fellow visitors enjoyed a refreshing swim in the Mediterranean Sea and we indulged in a delicious local lunch that was served with a spectacular sea view.
We then took a brief train ride to Vernazza post lunch, and this locale was possibly the prettiest among the five villages. Vehicular traffic was prohibited at Vernazza and it remains one of the most authentic fishing villages along the Italian Riviera. It is the Cinque Terre’s only natural port and is famous for its elegant houses and breath-taking Mediterranean views.
Ever the enthusiastic tourists, we then set out for Corniglia. This picturesque village was surrounded on three sides by vineyards and terraces, and its fourth side descended steeply into the sea. Later that evening, we had dinner at the Plaza from where we could listen in to gentle music wafting in. These were street artistes delivering beautiful Beatles and Eric Clapton renditions.
Between the sumptuous meal and the soothing music, my mind was preparing for the next stop on our itinerary – the floating city of Venice.