Rome is like a dream to me. Even a month later as I'm sitting back in Colorado looking out at the stunning scenes that surround my home, Rome is like a dream. I know I can't speak for everyone that has ever visited, but the typical tourist sights, mixed with such a depth of history, mixed with such a variety of nationalities, and mixed with my imagination and speculation as to who has walked on those same cobbles in the thousands of years prior to our honeymoon, is a bit overwhelming and has truly affected my heart. I came to Rome a bit apprehensive, as my only other experience in a large city overseas, was London, and I despised it. So Rome was intimidating to me. It's a huge city, supposed to be more dangerous, foreign language, and I had heard nothing but bad things about it, with the exception of a couple of friends. Jamie and I were blown away by what we discovered Rome to actually be. The people were insanely friendly, it's very easy to get around and we never felt unsafe even a little bit. We both absolutely loved Rome. I'd say that it was my favorite part of the trip, but we experienced so many different aspects of Italy, that I could honestly say that many parts of the trip were "my favorite."
When my beautiful bride and I first arrived in Rome on the morning of May 26th, we were both jet lagged and out of it...not to mention drained from the events over the previous week. Were were tired but determined not to give in to our eyelids campaign to turn our first hours in Italy into a coma party! So we dropped our bags off at the Caesar House and went to explore! We turned away from the Colosseum on Via dei Fori Imperiali knowing we would make a point to see it later in the trip, and headed towards Trajan's Column (or Colonna Tralana, but I'm going to use all of our english versions of the names here - even though I kind of disagree with it) and the Basilica of Santa Maria di Loreto. We were immediately bombarded with history and ruins. They litter Rome and are everywhere. It's thought that only 10% of the ruins are even uncovered...the rest having been built over and buried as Rome developed. And some that have been uncovered in the early 20th century, or later, are sitting along sidewalks as just another 2000 year old reminder of this classic and bustling city's past. It's amazing.
As we continued up Fori Imperiali, we found ourselves in awe of a more recent Roman spectacle, the Monument to Vittorio Emanuale II - the first king of Italy. This is a relatively young monument, mid 18th century, but is no less spectacular, though is wrought with criticism from Italians. It's huge and stands out unlike anything in the city, but has no dome and doesn't adhere to Rome's more traditional styles and architecture. We thought it was pretty cool and spent a half hour nursing a Fanta and sitting in the shade in front of this beast of a monument, enjoying each other and the sites around us!
We soon went back to our hotel, The Caesar House, showered up and Rosanna, one of the managers, sent us on a walk around the city. We took her suggestion and had some of the best pizza we'd ever had, then went over to capitol hill and enjoyed a piazza that Michelangelo designed himself, Piazza dei Campidoglio. We spent a good hour here watching people and waiting for the Manchester United and Barcelona teams to show up for a dinner in their honor, but got bored so went on over though the Jewish Ghetto and on to Campo Di Fiori via Piazza Matei (where there is a cool turtle fountain!) and had a glass of wine. We then went over to Piazza Navona for dinner. This place was amazing. We absolutely loved it. And Four Rivers Fountain was amazing! This is my favorite fountain in Rome, out of what we saw at least. It's just spectacular! I guess that guy Bernini knew what he was doing with stone and what not.
I really wanted to see the Pantheon, so we made the short walk over to this incredible building! This was my favorite in Rome. There is something special about this place. The history and the architecture is unreal! It's a tank of a building and has so much character. Everything about it exudes power and strength which I guess is fitting as it was originally a temple in honor of all of the gods worshiped in ancient Rome. So it has a little umph! We enjoyed Piazza della Rotunda, the piazza in front of the Pantheon, for a while, grabbed some gelato, and made our way back to the Caesar House after an amazing first day in Italy!
We spent the next day taking it easy. We went on another walk around the city, this time ending up in Vatican City. This place is, obviously, unbelievable. I still don't think it has sunk in. There is more history in any one corner of Vatican City than there is in the entirety of the United States. It's quite a bit to wrap your mind around. We walked around St. Peter's Square, went into St Peter's Basilica, and walk around in awe for a few hours. We decided to call it a day, head back for a nap and schedule a guided tour of Vatican City the next day. There is simply too much to see and we figured it would be nice to have someone knowledgeable about what treasures make there home in the Vatican give us a tour of the place. So... more Vatican to come.
We went back, took our nap, and got up and ready for dinner in Piazza della Rotunda. Sitting in front of the Pantheon for dinner is awesome! you pay a little extra for the view, but where else in the world can you have dinner in a setting like that? The Champion League Finals were that night in Rome. So it was fun to see all of the Barcelona and Manchester United fans out in full force! The atmosphere was electric with the excitement of the match. I would assume this is Super Bowl-esq - I have never been to one, but I can only assume that that is what the atmosphere would be like... It was great! Our server was pretty cool too. The policia were forbidding the sale of alcohol in Rome that night, and our server snuck us a glass of wine, which was a nice touch... all in all, an amazing night at the Pantheon. This is also the night that we discovered Nice Ice Gelato - the best we found...yum!
The next day we got up early and went over for a tour of the Roman Forum and the Colosseum. This was incredible. Again, more history than I have ever experienced. It was surreal walking around and thinking about all who had walked there before me. After a few hours there, we went over to the Colosseum and explored this relic. I was amazed at how intricate their systems and organization was for such a huge building for the time. I've read that they could fill or empty the 50,000+ seat stadium in under 10 minutes. Granted, they had men with whips "encouraging" the spectators to hurry along, but it's still impressive. We were then on our way to the Vatican for our tour with Angel Tours, after a salami sandwich thing of course.
The tour cost about $140 (US Dollars) for both of us, but was well worth it. Our Irish guide, Jimmy, with his green teeth, cut marks on his wrists, and a blinding passion for all things Art and all things Catholic, was the perfect guide and know-it-all to lead us through the 9 miles of hallways in the Vatican Museums, including the Sistine Chapel. Some highlights on this day were the Tapestry Hall (500 year old tapestries designed by Bernini), the Gallery of Maps, and the Sistine Chapel. The Tapestries were unreal. So much detail and some phenomenal artistic methods were used in their creation. The only thing is that they are literally within arms reach with nothing protected over them. It would be insanely easy for any vandal to completely destroy one of these in mere seconds. But so it is and we walked on... to the Gallery of Maps. This is ridiculous. The ceiling in here is amazing and worthy of a visit on it's own, but the Maps are something special. They were commissioned in the 1500's by Pope Gregory XIII and are remarkably accurate. These were all done by two men who sailed around Italy and traveled by land to record the country for these maps. These maps are 99% accurate, which is impressive without the use of overhead pictures which satellites take for our map makers today. At the end of this 120 meter long hall, you come to the crown jewel of the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel.
There really isn't too much to say about this. It is what it is ...absolutely stunning. One thing I'll share that I thought was really interesting is that Fuji has the copyright to Michelangelo's paintings on the ceiling! They completely funded the restoration of the ceiling in the 1990's and asked for the copyright in exchange. So there is a "no picture" policy in the chapel itself. It was also cool to see the marks on the floor from the stove the cardinals use during conclave to communicate to the world while a new Pope is being chosen. All in all, the tour was well worth the money. After the tour we made another swing through St. Peters Basilica. It's just so stunning, huge, dramatic, etc... it's like you're in another world. The art and detail that is in the church is unmatched by anything I have seen.
That night we ate at Grillo Brillo and had another outstanding meal in Rome. The next day we would be leaving, and heading to Tuscany for four nights in the hills. We got some more gelato and headed back to the hotel.
The next morning, we got up and ran over to the Pantheon for some more pictures, then b-lined for the airport to rent our car so we could hit the road and explore Tuscany! The drive was great and we were soon zipping through the Chianti region amidst steep hills, winding roads, and vineyards around every corner. Our destination was Le Pozze Di Lecchi, a 16th century bread mill that has been restored into a four star hotel and restaurant. This place was perfect! The restoration was done brilliantly and all of the little touches were impeccable. I can not say enough about this amazing place. And one of the managers, Sandro, was the icing on the cake. This guy is the real deal and added so much to our trip! If you go to Tuscany, stay here. Period.
Now, what can I say about Tuscany. Nothing will come close to how we really feel about this place. In my own experience, I'll just say that those native to Texas may have a tenth of one percent of the knowledge of what it means to be from Tuscano. Let me first say that the people are like none that I have ever experienced. There is the deepest pride of the land, the culture, the flora, and even the weather, and for me to even try to explain where the heart of these people lives would be a tragic insult to them and those that taught and came before them. I had the honor of having a two hour conversation about cheese in the Pienza township near Montepulciano. You can open a floodgate to any conversation concerning wine, cheese, or olive oil with any Tuscan, and they will talk as passionately about it as anyone will about anything. It's THE way of life. It's the most creative culture that I have ever dreamed of. Their passion for what God has placed in front of them and their ability to use what He has given them (knowledge of how to cultivate and create) is awe inspiring and makes me yearn for that sort of passion in my own life and in my own heart. They walk the walk, without talking the talk (unless you ask!).
The Land. I can't say enough. It's such a mix. In Chianti, you'll find hills as rugged as you can imagine. I think this is why Ferrari was invented, for touring Chianti. It reminds me of the Hill Country of Texas except for slightly bigger hills, and a little more rain...more suitable for cultivating. Then you have the region around Montalcino and Montepulciano with rolling hills, wheat fields, and less forest. You have more wide open vistas and grand scenic views. It's beautiful!
I can speak for both if us in saying that this was our favorite part of the trip. It was quiet, romantic, and everything that we were expecting Tuscany to be, and so much more. We hired a driver for a day to take us to a variety of vineyards, which was a blast. And a great way to learn about the area! We drove around a lot on our own exploring castles, vineyards, villages and back roads. And we did a lot of lounging. The fresh air was a relief after Rome and we soaked it in! It did rain quite a bit while we were there, but we made the most of it and did what we could. And let me just say that the food in Tuscany was unreal! Monna Ginevra, the restaurant at Pozze di Lecchi, was the best we experienced in Italy. Home made goodness was all they serve here. Ask jamie about the Ahi Tuna Steak. She has dreams about it.
We were excited about the next two legs of our trip ...Florence and Cinque Terre, but we were so sad to leave Tuscany. Truly a special place. But onward to Florence. The drive was pretty straightforward, with a little confusion trying to get to the airport. For the most part, the signage was great in Italy, but in Florence the signs for the airport were basically right at the turn and very small. So we got a little turned around for a few minutes, but were soon back on track. We took a cab to our hotel in Piazza della Signoria, in the heart of Florence. The location was great. We were about six stories above the square and had amazing views of the surrounding city.
To be honest, we a were a little disappointed with Florence. We had a great time exploring the city, but we liked Rome a lot better. It seemed like were were in the "Italy" section of Epcot Center. There were more Americans in Florence, and more notably sorority college girls, than we expected. It didn't feel very "Italian" to us and we were really surprised. It was also a lot dirtier than Rome was and much, much more crowded. We are glad we went, but were also glad we only stayed two nights there.
So onto Cinque Terre for the final big leg of our trip. We took the train from Florence to Pisa, spotting the leaning tower from the train, and onto Monterosso. Cinque Terre is a string of five fishing villages on the Lingurian Sea (an arm of the Mediterranean). You can hike between each of these quaint villages by trail or take a train between them if you're not into hiking. The scenery is stunning with rugged hills and steep terraced vineyards lining the cliffs on their way to the sea. We just relaxed, walked around, hiked, beached and explored during our four days here. The food was outstanding. One of the best meals of the trip was at a little spot called Ciak's. Fresh seafood, prepared in traditional Italian ways (whatever those are)... and it's fantastic. A bit pricey, but has to be on the list if you visit this part of Italy.
Another good spot, and the name escapes me now, was a little place right near the beach under the train tracks. Every time a train would pass overhead, the entire place would shake....but the food was great! We also got to see what we both envisioned Italians to be like! There was a big party in our dining room at the restaurant... a group of about 30. All the men talking loudly, giving each other hell, talking with their hands, patting each other on the faces, sometimes hard after a jab at their buddy, the women rolling their eyes and back talking to the men, all while passing around grappa and eating like kings! It was great! As they were leaving this little old lady came up to us, said something and pinched my cheek. I have no clue what she said, but it was awesome! She just laughed as she walked off. She could have told me I was the ugliest American she'd ever seen, but I didn't care... A little old Italian lady pinched my cheek! Super!
So after our stint in Monterosso, we were on a train back to Rome for one more night before we caught a flight back to the States. We checked back into the Caesar House, and then went to see the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish steps before heading back to Piazza Navona for the last dinner of our honeymoon. We both loved Piazza Navona and the Four Rivers Fountain, so it was a fitting place for our last night. We also had the pleasure of hearing the little trio again. It's this group of three guys that sing traditional Italian songs and play guitar as they stroll around Piazza Navona. They are fantastic! Our favorite was "Funiculi, Funicula." The guys voice is great and they add so much to the atmosphere... It was a perfect last night in Rome.
The next morning, with heavy hearts, we made our way to the airport for a marathon of a trip back. With delays, we traveled for over 24 hours, spending 8+ in the dirty Philly airport. Awesome!
This was an amazing trip with my amazing new bride! We both loved everything about Italy, and would love to return in the future to explore more of Rome, Tuscany and maybe more in the south. The people, the history, the landscapes are all worthy of a deep amount of appreciation. It's truly a special place.
Overall, if I was to recommend to a friend where to go in Italy, I would say spend at least 4 nights in Rome, and at least a week in Tuscany (at Pozze di Lecchi), and then head south to the Amalfi Coast and regions farther south. We weren't impressed with Florence, and liked Cinque Terre, but wouldn't recommend it to a friend as a "must see" destination. If you're in the area, then great, but I wouldn't go out of my way. You can hike it all in a short day and then there really isn't much more to see in the little towns. But is a great place to relax for a few days (if you don't know about Tuscany).
And here is a list of some links we'd like to share. We did a great job at picking hotels. All were fantastic and highly recommended.
And we took a TON of pictures... over 1500. So here is about 350 that made the cut... All were taken by myself or Jamie (except for the one of us in the Roman Forum - that was obviously taken by a Russian). Enjoy!
My Photos: HERE