Our final travel stretch in Europe was nine days in Italy. We disembarked our cruise in Rome and headed to our rented flat. My mother had arrived the day before and came down to greet us when we arrived. After quick hellos, we loaded my husband and the four suitcases into the elevator and the rest of us climbed up to the stairs to enjoy some much-needed air conditioning.
It was short-lived as the lumbering elevator decided to get stuck 6 inches from our floor, trapping my husband in a makeshift luggage sauna for more than 30 minutes. I started knocking on doors and talking with hand gestures to an elderly neighbor who was very animated in her Italian conversation with us. Once the elevator hazing was over, we settled into Italy and discovered the distinct personalities of the three cities we explored: Rome, Florence, and Venice.
RomeRome wraps around you like sweaty, sultry lover. It looms large and is well aware of all it has to offer.
Its confidence nudges you to overlook the cigarette-sprinkled cobblestone streets, the thick blanket of humidity, and traffic chaos and instead embrace the softness of the gnocchi, the sweet grapes in the ½ liter house wine, and the thrill of standing on 900-year-old mosaic tiles.
The city invites you to regard it as the king it once was. You can still see the edges of its dominance in the vast ruins spread throughout the city. There isn’t much separation between new and old – Rome is clearly the epicenter of where civilization first practiced survival of the fittest.Late one evening, I stood in the Colosseum and looked down the narrow hallway where gladiators would walk toward the battlefield. They entered through a single door, knowing that there was a door on the other side where freedom could be earned through blood.
Ancient Rome once housed roughly 20 percent of the world’s population and the density of the city reminds you of the super highway it once was. We explored the crypt of the Capuchin monks, who donated their bones to be used as decoration throughout the tombs. We descended deep in the ground at the Christian catacombs, dating from the second century, and walked the tunnels where Christian burials and mass were conducted in secret.
That is the balance of Rome – so much on display and in the shadows at the same time. Seeing the grandiosity of the Vatican and then walking past homeless people was a reminder of the splendor and
servitude the city embodies.
A personal highlight was seeing the work of Michelangelo. It’s one thing to know of him academically and quite another to see his paintings stretch across an entire room or to stand a few feet away from the marble creations he made while still in his 20s.
Even 500 years later, his work seems very intimate. The flashy displays in the Vatican are stunning, yet also have fierce emotion evident – not surprising given he was coerced into painting the chapel by the Pope. But his sculptures, which he considered the highest art form, are a study in perfection.The other abundant art form in Italy is gelato and we made good use of the triple serve mastery of the servers. It seemed to be created especially for the 90-plus degree summer heat.
After less than three days, we departed Rome and set off on the Frecciarossa high-speed train. With wide seats, air conditioning, free wifi, and snacks, you barely notice that you’re traveling over 180 mph. Our 90-minute journey was the most relaxing travel leg of the whole trip.
One day, America, let’s try this whole train thing….
Florence was the city where we had less structured activities for four days. At three weeks into travel, we knew we would be ready for some rest and this was the perfect place for it. The city hums along but at a more elegant pace than big-brother Rome. The outdoor market and cafes nod to the tourists but the city itself remains content with daily life.
In my grand travel planning, I booked all lodging through Airbnb and we had great luck in each city. We knew our Florence flat had 80 stairs to get to our top floor but that sounded more adventurous online than in-person.
This built-in calorie burner let us double dip on gelatos but it was taxing at the end of hot days. We were rewarded with a rooftop terrace where we could drink wine while watching the Tuscan sun dip into the sky and a view of the Duomo dome. Vacation heaven.On the culture side, the kids enjoyed wandering throughout the giant statues and it led to fun storytelling about David and Goliath, Medusa, and gods of all sorts (who are not featured in Marvel movies).
For me, there was a moment of awe when I turned a corner and saw the original David at the Galleria dell’Accademia. Standing over 14 feet tall, he has quiet grace – much like the city of Florence.
We took a horse carriage ride throughout the main streets at dusk one evening with 12-year-old Zack in the front seat with the driver. Weaving through the narrow streets and wide piazzas while surrounded by the chatter of fellow tourists was a highlight of our time there.
Sometimes you can drive the plans and other times the memories find you. It was a good reminder that the nerdiest things can also be the best things.
We spent our last two days in Italy in Venice and I wish we had more time there. I was immediately taken by this water wonderland. I’ve never seen a city like it before. The buildings beckoned us from our water taxi as we took it all in.
We were greeted at our stop by our Airbnb host and he guided us to our flat down a narrow street. Once we dropped off our gear, we went out to wander around this metropolitan maze.Our street used to have a shoemaker’s shop so two shoes were etched in stone at the end of our walkway, serving as a visual street sign. The rest of the exploring was much the same spirit. Each turn took you in a new direction, and soon I felt like I was in the middle of the Choose Your Own Adventure books that I loved so much as a child.
Venice is the perfect place to go without a plan. Turn left here to stop for dinner, go right and then around to find a small store selling local art. But wherever you go, bring your wallet because Venice doesn’t have a dollar menu.
Street vendors came out with the crowds offering everything from knock-off Prada bags to novelty items for kids. The real money-maker would be selling bottled water to the wilting crowds.
We went into full tourist mode on our last couple of days. We took an hour-long gondola ride with one of only two female gondoliers and it was a lovely way to see the city from the water. We fed the pigeons in St. Mark’s square but managed to avoid the vendors selling picture-taking services and bags of bird food.We saw so many beautiful churches in so many countries and they started to blend together for the kids by the end. At the Parthenon in Rome, Zack sighed, “Sometimes Europe is just so church-y.”
And it is. Nonetheless, I was stunned by the beauty of St. Mark’s Basilica. The interior domes are covered in brilliant gold mosaic, creating a magical element surrounding you from above.
In fact, there was a bit of magic element to Venice itself. She’s a playful, charming host – aware of her grand beauty but welcoming her admirers to come sample la dolce vita.
As we rocked in the water on the way to the airport, I looked back upon her in the morning light and knew I would be back again. Italy isn’t a place you visit just once, it’s an introduction and an invitation.
More to see, more to sample, more to remember.