Missed Part I? No worries, read it here.
Day 7-8: Touring Ancient and modern Rome (Lazio)
The main landmarks
We managed to conquer Rome in 2.5 days. The must-sees are located in the heart of the city and within walking distance from each other. We started by throwing a coin (using the right hand over the left shoulder) in the radiant baroque Trevi Fountain. It is said that around 3,000 euros are thrown each day, and once collected the amount is used to subsidise projects for Italy’s capital city development. The touristy signs lead next to the imposing Pantheon, standing in front of us with its large columns and concrete dome. Nowadays, the former Roman temple is a church and shelters the tombs of important protagonists in Italy’s history, especially Raphael and Victor Emmanuel II (first King of a unified Italy). Piazza Navona, the most famous square of the city, was the next stop. I sat for a while in the gorgeous church of Sant’Agnese in Agone to contemplate the cupola and its frescoes. We ended up having an aperitivo in a cosy bar on the Campo di Fiori, a very trendy area where a daily market takes place. Walking through Vatican City’s surroundings by night, we were completely blown away by the quietness of a glowing St Peter’s Square. A real swarm of people during the day, yet so inspiring and peaceful at night: the contrast was striking.
After taking a thorough look at the imperial National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II and the Capitole, we walk down to the Roman Forum, located in between the Capitoline and the Palatine hills. It used to be a vital market place surrounded by government buildings and temples. The most ancient ruins date back to the 7th century BC. The panoramic view from the Palatine hill was simply stunning with traces of Roman’s social life on one side, and the Colosseum on the other side, biggest amphitheatre ever built at the time of Imperial Rome. It is there very interesting to examine the mechanisms used under the main stage to lift up animals or gladiators during battles.
With the little energy we still had, we headed to the large and vibrant Piazza del Popolo. We could better admire its Egyptian obelisk, fountains and Porta del Popolo from a lovely upper terraced park where a musician was playing sweet love songs. We were now in the Villa Borghese gardens, huge and calm park which hides many villas and the famous National Gallery of Modern Art. It is smart to hire a bike if you wish to explore every nook and cranny of the park. With refilled batteries and a serene spirit, we had dinner at the most amazing shopping mall ever, Eataly – because it is all about food. Built in an abandoned Air Terminal building, the trendy chain has set up its biggest store in Rome. Everything that Italian cuisine has to offer is displayed on 3 floors along with themed restaurants: pasta, pizza, meat, fish, beer, wine, gourmet dishes, etc.
If you happen to be in Rome on a Wednesday or Sunday when the Pope is giving an audience or a public blessing from his apartment on St Peter’s Square, you MUST attend it. The positive energy freed by the audience from all ages and horizons really proves that Catholic religion is still significant.
Day 9-10: Stendhal syndrome in Florence (Tuscany)
We first discovered Florence by night, and the beaming green and pink colours of the immense Cathedral immediately made a high impression on me. It was so astonishing. This memorable “slap in the face” is most probably the reason why Florence remains my favourite town. Perhaps also due to its cultural particularity: it has the highest density of art per square meter than any other city in the world. Some people even still experience what has been named the “Stendhal syndrome”.
“I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty… I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations… Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves.’ Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.” Stendhal
If unable to schedule a visit to the Galleria dell’Accademia, a replica of Michelangelo’s massive sculpture David is located in the city centre. The meticulous details are stunning: the hand veins, face expression, hair, and of course his brawny butt! The next day, we queued early in the morning to visit the inside of the Cathedral di Santa Maria del Fiore where we spent some time under the dome contemplating Vasari’s frescoes (The Last Judgment being prominent).
Florence is also well known for its markets of quality leather, and … food! As you may have already read about my passion for food markets (here), you’ll understand why I had to try the Mercato Centrale! On the ground floor, vendors sell mostly Tuscan specialties: spices, truffles, focaccias, Chianti, fruits, vegetables, and so many more. The first floor was bustling with people enjoying delicious meals. The original idea is to buy food from one of the restaurants and to sit altogether on one of the tables in the middle of it all. I had there the best-grilled beef tagliata ever.
The Ponte Vecchio is very singular because it sill has shops (gold jewelleries), resulting in “little houses” visible from the outside. Once crossed, we continued walking to the Boboli gardens located behind the Pitti Palace. Map in hands, it is a real treasure hunt to find the many sculptures and fountains. Half a day should be dedicated to the Galleria degli Uffizi which is home to the greatest Italian artists: Botticelli, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, to mention only the most famous; but also a few international painters like Rembrandt. After the 3-hour visit, I needed some more time to realise and analyse what I had just seen.
Day 11: Rainy day in Venice (Veneto)
For our greatest pleasure, we found a grey sky and some raindrops in Venice. Although plenty of invincible tourists endured the weather to stroll in the city, it was rather calm and enjoyable. I had read many times that the best way to discover Venice is to go off the beaten track and get lost in the streets along canals and bridges. There’s actually nothing easier than getting lost, as all the little paved streets look similar, with hidden particularities in the houses’ colours and shops.
It is more pleasant to see the Rialto bridge from outside, since it is always extra crowded. On St. Mark’s Square, there is no other way but to make its own path through the hordes of tourists. I guess this is what Venice is all about. We still appreciated the magnificence of the square’s building: the basilica, the Campanile, the Clock tower, and the Dodge’s Palace, which we decided to visit. In the former gothic-style home of the Doge of Venice, we learned about how the Venetian Republic used to be ruled going from institutional chambers to the prison. We crossed the Bridge of Sighs, whose symbolic name describes the prisoners’ last view over Venice before being locked up in a cell.
Taking the Vaporetto to visit the island of Murano in the Venetian Lagoon (famous for its glass-making), I acknowledged the great threats facing the World Heritage site of Venice and its Lagoon. Due to mass tourism, cruise ships are invading the Lagoon despite the rapidly rising sea level. As a result, and for many other dangers, many NGOs throughout Europe are joining forces to safeguard Venice after an appeal launched by UNESCO already in 1966.
Day 12: Love feeling in Verona (Veneto)
People breathe happiness and love in Verona. Juliet’s house, which inspired Shakespeare’s play, is one of the top attractions. Many tourists fancy a photo from the balcony and write the name of their beloved ones on the entrance wall – supposed to bring everlasting love. Another landmark is the impressive Arena, an incredibly well preserved Roman amphitheatre, still in use for musical performances nowadays. Remains of Roman gates as well as traces of the ancient city walls, are hidden around the city and deserve a look.
Day 13: thermal therapy on Lago di Garda (across Lombardy, Veneto and Trentino-South Tyrol)
You made it! If you reach this point of the itinerary, you may feel exhausted. And so we did. We discovered Lake Garda, the biggest in Italy, through the small town of Sirmione located on a peninsula. The lovely medieval old town features fortifications and the Scaliger Castle, but is also full of ice cream and crafts shops. Another highlight is the thermal centre Terme di Sirmione, where we ended up for 3 hours of relaxation. It offers wellness, spa treatment, indoor and outdoor pools with massages, sauna, fitness, therapies, all including a view over the lake. So treat yourself!
Day 14: experiencing history on the Borromean Islands (Lago Maggiore) (across Piedmont, Lombardy and Ticino canton of Switzerland)
We spent our last day on the Lago Maggiore, located across Italy and Switzerland. Going to Stresa in the Italian part gives you the possibility to take a boat and reach the Borromean Islands owned by the Borromeo family, one of the main tourist attractions. Three are accessible: Isola Madre, Isola Bella and Isola dei Pescatori. Isola Bella is certainly the most visited and well known, as the historic Stresa Conference took place in one of the sumptuous room of the palace in 1935. The original agreement signed by Laval, MacDonald and Mussolini is even hanging on the wall. A fascinating sea spirit reigns over the palace and its gardens: unique cobblestoned shell grottoes, emblematic statues, the Teatro Massimo, and a perfectly geometrical flora.
Allow some sun-tanning session by a swimming pool for the rest of the day before having to face again the harsh reality…
Although this trip itinerary is intense, it offers an authentic overview of the most typical regions of Italy, the most outstanding historical sites to visit and a great deal of general culture! Have you ever been to Italy and followed a different itinerary? Please, share it!