The joys of Florence!
A busy few days — and very slow wifi — have kept us all from blogging. On Saturday morning, we left Rome and caught a 11:45am high-speed train to Florence, the landscapes of central Italy zipping past at us at 250 km/h, to arrive in the city’s main train terminal an hour and a half later.
We had to drag our small suitcases across the cobbled streets and sidewalks and over a bridge to our next AirBnB, where we were met by Giulia, a hospitable local woman who had renovated the apartment for rent with her family. It was down a side street, a few minutes from the main tourist areas, and a delightful mix of funky (exposed brick, wooden ceilings set off by splashes of colour throughout) and functional (making good use of a submarine-like space that might have otherwise felt claustrophobic).
We were mere steps from anything we needed — and many things we didn’t know we required… like the first evening, when music and revelry drifted through our open window, so Briar and I went out to discover a jazz festival concert in the neighbouring square.
The next morning, we got up early (for us!) to make use of the 9am reservation at the Uffizi Gallery. AJ wasn’t feeling well — perhaps undone by the air pollution in Rome and a sleepless night in the new bunkbed — so he stayed back to sleep in.
Briar, Jenny and I wandered with a few thousand other tourists the art-packed rooms of Italy’s most famous art gallery. The highlights were the Botticellis, including his mega-famous Primavera, although we had more space to admire the rows and rows of ancient statues collected there. The gallery included the only complete oil-on-canvas work by Michelangelo as well as a fascinating illustrative progression from the flat, heavily symbolic, and deeply religious medieval works to the humane, complexly perspectived and vividly alive Renaissance paintings that defined the Florentine style. Briar soon ran out of energy, so we finished up in just under two hours and wandered back over the bridge to check in on AJ.
He was revived enough to join us for an afternoon visit to the Accademia — a gallery more or less devoted to one work: Michelangelo’s David. And worth every minute there (even with the crowds). The “aura” of David, as you enter the hall and see him/it from a distance for the first time, can’t be diminished by the endless images and reproductions we’ve all seen over the years, the cartoons and cameos. The sense of awe grows even more as you approach and look up at his confident gaze and casual, yet ready pose. Selfies were being taken furiously around him, but he took no notice. He had a more important task at hand. (Full disclosure: I made sure to get a pic with my namesake.)
After leaving the gallery, we walked through the throngs of tourists in downtown Florence. Past the Duomo, through the Gucci shop (Briar’s request), over the Ponte Vecchio Bridge, past the Pitti Palace (where we would traipse through the Boboli Gardens the next morning), past more churches than we could count and enough gelaterias to set our appetites alight… and back to the quiet sanctuary of our mini-apartment in the delightful Oltrarno neighbourhood.
Our final day, we slept in till 11am. No galleries booked, to the kids delight. We let AJ and Briar choose our destinations. Briar led us to the Boboli Gardens… although was disappointed to learn it was the site of a maze… past tense. Then we walked along the Arno to a park with an outdoor pool, bought our tickets and our mandatory swimming caps, and enjoyed a cool dip and some lengths in the 30C afternoon heat. Finally, we capped it off with a meal — ordered entirely in Italian! — at the La Casalinga trattoria, famous for years among locals for its traditional fare.
And, yes, the pasta is on a whole different plane of pleasure here in Italy! And so is the gelato…
A trip to Vatican City
Our last day in Rome started slowly as we slept in (sort of — not all of us slept) with plans (and tickets) to visit Vatican City, to see St. Peter’s Basilica, the Museums and especially the Sistine Chapel.
First, we stretched our bared legs — we knew we couldn’t wear shorts to the Vatican City — with a walk past the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, Independence Square, and some of the area’s high-end shops. Briar wanted to check out the Gucci store but we needed to get back to our apartment.
A quick change and then we caught a bus across the Tiber River to Vatican City, where we lined up for access to St Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world. Technically, we were in another nation, one of the smallest in the world, although the colourful Swiss guards seemed to be the only giveaway. No passport required.
The kids were skeptical of checking out churches, but the scale of St. Peter’s left them awed—or at least minimized complaining for a while. A service of some sort was taking place and we watched as a procession of priests led congregants through a sfumato of incense, down the huge central nave, and into a smaller side chapel.
We admired Michelangelo’s Pieta and I helped a small Italian grandmother get a shot of the famous sculpture by holding her phone high above my head for an unobscured image. As we left the church, the Swiss Guard were performing their 6:00pm change with steely-eyed ritual… so we joined the observing throng.
Then we had a 7pm date with the Vatican Galleries, as I’d lucked in and discovered they were open in the evening, only on Fridays, which made it one of the least busy times to visit… which turned out to be true. We were in the first wave to enter and had several of the gallery rooms (such as the Egyptian wing) to ourselves, or joined by only a handful of other visitors, before the larger tour groups starting sweeping down the long galleries.
Highlights included the Belvedere Apollo; a mammoth bowl of porphyry for a Roman emperor (Nero?); the tapestry gallery (with huge depictions of the life of Christ, almost in the style of a contemporary graphic novel), and the map room covering every region of Italy. Then of course there were Raphael’s wall-sized and detailed depictions of papal and church history.
We didn’t do justice to the later and contemporary galleries that were in the way of the rush to see the Sistine Chapel, although I spotted a Chagall and a Francis Bacon down a wide wall as the kids demanded we keep up a good pace.
Finally, the security guards told people to put their cameras away as we entered the Sistine Chapel—and every head swivelled up to its famous ceiling. It didn’t disappoint. I felt dizzied as blood rushed between my ears and my eyes leaped from one famous image to the next, each an explosion of colour (now that the original paintwork has been restored from years of candle smoke) and dramatically frozen action. We sat along the edges of the chapel and tried to take it all in… sore feet and all.
And then the kids’ stomachs started growling and their patience had thinned and it was time to catch the Metro home for a late dinner and plans to wake early enough to pack up for Florence the next morning. But it will likely be an experience that none of us will forget any time soon.
We got moving slowly on day 2 in Rome, only leaving the apartment after noon, after a restless sleep for just about everyone, nudging a little closer to re-aligning our sleep cycles.
The plan: a day trip out of the city to the Romain ruins of Ostia Antica and then our first tip in the Mediterranean in the seaside town of Ostia. We walked to the Metro, took it 3 stops, and then changed to a commuter train that led us beyond the city limits, in the direction of the airport, with a stop at Ostia Antica. A short walk led to the gates of the archaeological site — which will likely remain one of the highlights of our trip.
After the tourist smush at all the various highlights of Rome yesterday, Ostia Antica felt like a world apart. The site itself is large — a full town, in various states of restoration — and there were no crowds, just a few couples and small groups wandering the grounds in relative quiet. There was time and space to let your imagination wander back through the centuries to when this town — the first Roman colony outside of the city — was a vital naval base and then supply line to feed and clothe the million residents down the Tiber River in Rome.
We entered through the necropolis, through Ostia’s main gates, past the remains of warehouses that once housed grain and other supplies drawn from across the Mediterranean. Statues lined the cobbled road, including winged Minerva. A bathhouse floor was being restored — beautiful telework of Neptune, Neptune’s wife, the sea create Charybdis. We explored the amphitheatre, whited backed onto a U-shaped area for merchants: each of their stalls was advertised using telework: ships, urns, elephants to signify the ivory trade.
Restoring the bathhouse
Then we wandered off the main street into the narrower residential areas. You could feel the life of this ancient city in the texture of the walls, the labyrinthine yet highly organized pathways. the tilework and porticos. We picnicked in the shade as parakeets chirped overhead and then wandered out of the town, lost in thoughts of what this city must have been like at the height of the Empire.
Ostia Antica amphitheatre
Roman ruins in Ostia Antica
Two more train stops took us to Ostia Lido and then a 10-minute walk to the seaside. We skipped the paid beaches and cooled off in the warm water of the Mediterranean… too tired to linger, but refreshed nonetheless. A perfect day.
The train took us back quickly to the centre of Rome, and then, after showering off the salt of our day in the sun and the sea, we walked not more than 30 seconds to Le Tavernellle, a lively restaurant on the same street as our apartment, for a traditional Roman meal: appetizer, primo, second, dessert. The pasta was amazing. The service lively. And the tiramisu — which had won awards that now hung from the walls — as good as advertised.
Pesto pasta at Le Tavernelle
We would all sleep well tonight
I’d booked us morning tickets to the Colosseum for our first full day in Rome. Walk off the jet lag! See one of the city’s most famous monuments!
Inside the Colosseum
Our AIrBnB — a quiet first floor apartment in an 18th-century building in the heart of the city — was just 10 minutes stroll from the Colosseum. And thanks to the Internet, I knew to book ahead for skip-the-line tickets. Our guide was an enthusiastic and deeply knowledgeable young Roman art historian named Claudia, who led us on a three-hour tour of the main structure, the Forum and the Palatine Hill, peppering us with a steady stream of stories and factoids and myth-busting.
The Colosseum only accepts 3,000 visitors at a time — which still felt crowded, so it was hard to imagine (for perhaps not so hard) the packed hordes of upwards of 75,000 fans who would fill the stands during the 100 days of “games”.
Let the Games begin!
A few myths that Claudia busted:
- Christians weren’t sacrificed in the Colosseum
- Gladiators didn’t fight animals. That was done by a special class of fighter
- The Emperor didn’t signal for the life/death of a defeated warrior with up/down thumb signal. If anything a thumb — signifying the sword — was drawn horizontally, like a blade across the throat. And executing wounded warriors also cost the organizers extra, so they were often reprieved.
- Imitation naval battles weren’t conducted, although during the initial opening of the Colosseum, the main stage was flooded to 2 metres for a watery wading battle. That area was later covered by the wooden and sand floor of the battle space and the underground used to the “beasts” before their release into the arena.
Claudia then guided us into the Forum and ended our tour atop the Palatine Hill for views across the city.
View of Forum from Palatine Hill
We returned to our apartment and tried to avoid the mistake of a midday nap to mess with our sleep cycle. Instead we took an evening stroll through more Roman Highlights:
- Trevi Fountain. More selfie-sticks per capita than anywhere I’ve been!
- The Pantheon, for a quick tour of the moody and mammoth-domed edifice, now a cathedral.
- A stop at Giolitti, to confirm they served the best gelato in Rome. Check!
- A final wander through the spacious pedestrian square of Piazza Navoli, lively with restaurants and street hawkers and performers and tourists lounging by the ornate fountains and little old Italian scenes observing the scene from their apartment balconies.
- The Trajan Column, which we accidentally stumbled past on our walk home.
Trevi Fountain crowds
Then a tasty home-cooked pasta dinner in our apartment and dreams of a good night’s sleep (only partially realized).
And we’re off!
An early start got us from Victoria to Montreal, and then overnight to Rome, courtesy of Air Canada. One airport shuttle later, and we were on the steps of our AirBnB in the heart of Rome— and barely standing, due to jet lag.
Taking off from Montreal
Then a hard crash on the bed, a run to the grocery store, slices of thin Roman pizza on the steps of a fountain, and a selfie near the Colosseum (aka tomorrow’s main event) before a return to our accommodation to get ready for the next 50 days on the road.
But first shaking the jet lag. Night 1 = 12 hours thrashing in bed to produce maybe 3 hours of intermittent sleep.
After much planning — and our looming departure — our itinerary for our 7-week family trip through Mediterranean Europe is pretty much finalized. Our stays will now include:
- Bologna (& day trips to Parma and Venice)
- Montegonzi (& day trips in the Chianti region)
- Porto Azzurro (on the Island of Elba)
- Monterosso al Mare (& the other Cinque Terre towns)
- Saint Remy de Provence
- Palavas les Flots (& Montpellier)
- Barcelona (and then the long flight home)