Contributed by Kiran Uday M. You can see his personal blog at http://sumthingofeverything.blog.com
Visit to Italy was the most awaited and planned among all the European trips. As we have done the travel and hotel reservations well in advance, there was a lot of clarity in terms of itinerary for those 4.5 days (it is tough to justify the adequacy of this time, but this was the best we could work out) and the places to visit (I still have a pile of discovery and lonely planet books near my bed). The plan as it goes, was 2 days at Roma (Rome) and the Vatican, followed by a day at Fierenzo (Florence) and Pisa and finally a day and half at Venezia (Venice). I knew it would not be a relaxed trip and was all prepared mentally to accommodate to the available time, food (Pizza, Pasta and surprisingly some good Indian), weather (rain forecasted for 2 days and it was not wrong). Also, one recurring uncertainty was that it was the Christmas time and we were not sure how much of the plan can be productive as we were told that there will a partial shutdown in Rome on December 25th.
It was a Ryanair flight on 24th morning from Stanstead airport (a break from Heathrow), which is around 50 miles from UxBridge. I could bag the left window seat and had a good view of Channel Islands, the Swiss Alps and few towns all through the flight. From the airplane, Rome looked quite modern with few complexes built seemed inspired by the Colosseum. It is the city of seven hills with two of them comprising the ancient Rome having 2500 years of history. The two-hour flight ended at Roma Ciampiano Aeroporto in 3 degrees temperature, still better than London. This place is far from the city (the main Airport being Leonardo Di Vinci) from where we had taken a bus to reach the city centre called Roma Termini. Termini is the train terminus of Rome and also the junction of two lines of Rome Metro. We had just dumped the weights and did not want to spend any more time at Alessandro Palace (Palace is confined only to name), the place of stay for the next two nights, before we moved on to the Vatican. After a quick brunch of Pizzas, we have taken the Metro from Termini. It was a long walk from the nearest metro station till we found the huge wall around this 100-acre smallest independent sovereign country called Vatican, marking its limits with the rest of Italy.
In the times of BC, Vatican was an unhealthy hog, famous for its vinegary wine, snakes and diseases. In the 1st century AD this area had some gardens, with chariot racing and executions being the regular events on what is now the St.Peter’s square. The present limits were formed in 1929 Lateran Treaty with Pope Pious XI. The occasion was marked by laying of Via Della Concilliazione, a tree-lined avenue (I found it traffic-jammed) that connects Piazza San Pietro (or St.Peter’s square) to Castel sant’ Angelo. The Vatican country is roughly trapezoidal in shape surrounded by a medieval wall on all its sides except at the place where St.Peter’s square marks it border with Rome. Vatican has six openings of which three or four are for public use. What makes Vatican more interesting is not just because it is the top-most religious seat for Christianity, but also because it has some museums, which are proud of the paintings and marvellous sculptures that deserves a lifetime study. Most famous of them are the Mesei e Gallerie del Vaticano and Pio clemento that contains the pope’s collection of antiques. Then the Etruscan Museum has the details of Etruscan civilization that had dominated the area what is now called Italy few centuries before Romans have established themselves in 8th century AD. The last one to be mentioned in the Sistine Chapel, famous for its works by Michellangelo Buonarroti. He has worked on the paintings on just the ceiling alone for 5 years from 1508 to 1512. The 200 square meter painting with 391 figures, The Last Judgement is the most dazzling of all of them and had taken three years to complete.
We wanted to enter the Vatican through one of these museums. As it was closed we had taken the route along the wall to step in through the St. Peter’s square. The first sight of the St. Peter’s dome was astounding through the columns of the circular corridor that surrounds the square. The corridor comprises of 284 such columns in four rows and was designed in such a way that when seen from the centre of the square, the columns appear to be in a solitary row. Bernini has carved the sculptures and Michelangelo designed the dome, which was completed after his death in 1514. Within the square, there were two fountains on either side of the pillar; the pillar itself exactly is in the middle of the square. A big Christmas tree and a small stage were installed on the Christmas Eve.
There was a security check for getting into the San Pietro Basilica. It starts with a smaller room with paintings on every inch of it and then opens to what can be called as another world, the main hall of St.Peter’s Basilica. It is a gigantic room with roof high above and chapels on both the sides. The first one on the right is the La Pieta, a sculpture with Virgin Mary holding Jesus and is more famous as this is Michellangelo’s only work with his signature on it. It is shielded behind a glass-case following an attack in 1972. Other chapels hold the tombs of earlier popes. There is also a passageway, Passeto which links St. Peter’s to Castel Sant’ Angelo a mausoleum around a kilometre away. There was a museum within the basilica, which houses glittering jewellery used for religious purposes. It was the time to have the view of square from the top of the dome. The top of the 119-meter dome can be reached by lift till the first level and from there by circular stairs. The views of St. Peter’s square and the rest of the Vatican from the dome were breathtaking. There is a straight road called Via Della Concilliazione with 12 columns on its either side connecting the St. Angelo Castel and the circular St. Peter’s square (yes, the square is actually circular!). On the right side is the river Tibre with some old bridges on it. I could see the entire Vatican from this place with its administration buildings, museums and beautiful gardens, fountains etc. surrounded by the tall wall. It was dark when we came down to the square. The Basilica, the Christmas Tree, fountains in the square was lightened up and there was a ceremony on the Eve to unveil the stage that has the illustration of the Birth of Christ. There were other preparations for the speech of Pope John Paul II that night and for the mass the next morning. It was the time to leave Vatican for that day.
We were on a relaxed walk having popcorn on the Via Della Concilliazione opposite to the St. Peter’s and in 15 min we were at the Castel Sant’ Angelo on the banks of Tibre. The Roman Emperor-Philosopher Hadrian (76 AD – 138 AD, also built the Hadrian Wall in Lake District, UK to save the land he has conquered against the tribal invasions) had designed this mausoleum. When Charles VIII of France had tried invading Rome in 1494, he was repelled by arrows and missiles fired from this castle. Pope Clement VII took refuge in 1527 in this castle, through the passageway, built in 1277, from St. Peter’s, when Constable of Borbourn’s troops ransacked Rome. There is a statue of Archangel Michael on the top holding a sword. Now this is a museum housing the artefacts of all periods of Roman History including the Chamber of the Urns, which has the ashes of Hadrian’s family. There is a circular path to reach the top where there are rooms with ramparts, prison chambers, trap doors, drawbridges, cannonballs etc and also a bar in this 2000-year-old place. There is an oldest bridge opposite to this castle Ponte Sant’ Angelo with idols on both the sides (somewhat resembling the one on the Seine opposite to Place’ De Invaledis in Paris) built by Hadrian himself, which had survived for 15 centuries till 1450 before it collapsed under the strain of pilgrims who came to celebrate a Holy year. It was rebuilt with the ruins and the statues as designed by Bernini. Combined view of the castle and the bridge from the other side of Tibre made me think how it would have looked 2 millenniums ago.
We could find a decent Indian restaurant called Zam-Zam owned by a Bangladeshi just 10 min walk away from Termini. Called-off the day having after a good baka-baka (came into terminology in Cambridge to say eat-till-neck).
The next happening day had started with an open tour on the bus lasting for around an hour. There were artistic fountains at every Piazza with water spewing out in different fashions. The main sights on the bus tour were Piazza Venezia, a huge 19th century construction which was the Italian Parliament and now a museum, the Capitoline Hill, the circus of Maximus, the most famous Trevi Fountain, the Trajan’s Column, the Vatican, the Castel Sant’ Angelo, the President’s residence and a couple of other Piazzas. There were few places that are not directly accessible from this route, which we have taken note of. I was quite excited about the first glimpse to Colosseum and it had ended while taking the photographs opposite Piazza Venezia on the Capitoline Hill. There is a diagonal road called Via Forte’ Imperial beside this place that has the Colosseum, the bloodthirsty amphitheatre for the Roman entertainment, at its other end. This traffic-restricted road, Via Forte’ Imperial is situated in a plateau between the Capitoline and Paletine Hills, has the 2000-year-old monuments on its either side and is the heart of Ancient Rome. Mainly dominated by the Roman forums, the start of this road has church Santissimo Nome Di Maria and the Trajan Column on its left. The Trajan’s market that stands in the background of the Trajan’s Forum is a brownish hemicycle construction with small windows looking over other ruins. Emperor Trajan’s statue was installed opposite to his Forum with letters “SPQR” [stands for “Senatus Populusque Romanus – The Senate and People of Rome] on the tablet below; Coming to the right, opposite to the Trajan’s Forum is the first of the imperial forums, the Forum of Julius Caesar having the Temple of Venus Genetrix inside it. Also seen are the Temple of Saturn, the Arch of Vespasian which was built by Domitian in 81 AD etc. Continuing on the road to the next of Julius’s Forum in the Forum of Augustus with the Temple of Mars Ultor. The only surviving parts are few columns and statues of Venus and Mars. All the temples are now having just few columns that were a part of their front appearance. The original structures of these temples look like the Acropolis in Athens. Greece Architecture is the oldest of all the surviving European architectures, which was adapted by Romans for most of their constructions.
End of the road is the Amphitheatrum Flavium (later called Colosseum), which was started by the emperor Vespasian in the valley between the Palatine, Caelian and Esquiline hills. Emperor Titus completed the fourth and fifth tiers in 80 AD with imposing spectacles and games that lasted at a stretch for 100 days, which claimed thousands of animals and gladiators in the name of ruthless sports. Having lot of entrances and gates around, it can accommodate sixty thousand citizens. It was equipped with the elevator system using which lions, tigers, wild boars, elephants, crocodiles etc. were sent into the ‘play’ field. Some of the gladiators were sent to the field with their faces soaked with blood to ensure that he/she would not escape from the animals. The sports lasted for years before the Colosseum was struck by lightning twice and by earthquake. It was restored every time but the fun did not last long. The last held sport was in 523 AD and the gladiatorial games and hunts were called off from then. After a walk on the path around the Colosseum watching through each of the gates, we had posed for some pictures with the men dressed up like gladiators outside the place. Next to it is the Arch of Constantine located exactly between the Capitoline and Paletine hills. From there we went around the ruins in Paletine Hill, which has the Arch of Titus, Arch of Augustus etc (they are looked alike except for the direction and graffiti on them).
After a lazy lunch at an Italian restaurant on Via Forte’ Imperial, from an elevated place nearby a wonderful view of the hills helped to get an idea of relatives positions and complete structures of each of these forums and temples ending in deliberation of exact picture of how the place looked in the Roman era (very similar to the recreation in Russel Crowe’s The Gladiator). Coming back to 2004 after a while, I saw a depiction of the expansion of the Roman Empire along the wall of Basilica of Constantine and Maxentiues. After a quick visit to into the Memertine Prisons at the slopes of Capitoline hills dated around 42 AD which is a dark cellar chamber, we took a stroll on Via Tulliano that provides a great view of the Temple of Saturn surviving with seven columns, Temple of Vespasian with three columns and the Arch of Septimus. We have got back to the modern Rome starting with Piazza Venezia that now houses a museum and Piazza Del Campidoglio which is a seat of city’s government since ancient times, designed again by Michelangelo for Pope Paul III. There is a pillar with the Roman Emblem, Etruscan she-wolf on its top. Some of these buildings in Rome are still under the control and maintenance of the Vatican.
Next was the place called Piazza Novona having a fountain with statues of seven men and studded with lot of gamble stalls, tora-tora, statue men (statue of mummy is commendable) etc. The main fountain in the middle of the square, with huge sculptures of four old, bearded mean and snakes, horses illuminated with orange lights, is one of the extraordinary fountains I have seen. After trying our luck at the gamble stalls, we have moved on to the most famous fountain in Rome, the Fontana De Trevi. This is undoubtedly one of the Rome’s popular sights which was built in 1736 and funnels water through a canal that is more than 2000 years old. The place is more famous for the legend: throw a coin into the water and you will return to this eternal city. This crowded place has a small beautiful arch with the statue of an old man pointing his hand down at the other small statues on rocks with water gushing out on the illuminated structure falling into the green pool at the bottom. I have seen lots of coins inside the pool and have done my bit too hoping to embrace Rome again. We were on walk to the Ancient Rome again to see the ruins in illumination and that proved it worth. Our stroll continued through Circus Massimo, a long open ground and Bucca Della Verita, statue of a lion head with its mouth open and goes with a belief that a liar cannot take his hand out from the lion’s mouth. On the way back, we have visited few other Piazzas before stopping at the Zam-Zam hotel for a heavy dinner. After all, we were not sure if we get such a place to eat at our next destination – Fierenzo.
The next morning, it took an hour and half to reach Fierenzo (Florence) from Rome by EuroTrain – Trenitalia destined to Milano (Milan). Florence is small town on the banks of Fiume Arno (river Arno) and has the best art and science museums of Europe. The place is very ancient with carved buildings and sculptures being unveiled in excavations. We had checked-in at hotel SanPolo, which is no less to a museum. All the walls are having old paintings, arts and every object looks antique. Plan was to visit Pisa from here and come back soon so that we can squeeze in maximum time for local sightseeing. After an hours journey we were at the tranquil town which has been attracting tourists since nine centuries for the only reason of its leaning tower. It is a straight road from the train station to reach Piazza Dei Duomo which has the Leaning Tower, Baptistery, Duomo and Campo Dei Miracoli, all in one compound. The first glance of the stooping structure was with a tree in the foreground around 100 meters before we reached the place. The tower with seven-tier campanile has begun in 1173 and started to lean as soon as it was erected, as the architect Bonnanoo Pisano has not done his groundwork. By the time the third tier was completed 1178, the tower was tilting northwards and the work was suspended. Nearly 100 years later, the construction was resumed and the tower started bending southwards which is the present direction. By late 14th century the construction of the tower was completed. There were attempts to correct the tilt by 40cm but in 1995 all the trials were called off as the tilt was increased fractionally. The top most level has seven bells added in 1350 and have not rung since 1993. The 294-step tower was closed to public in 1989 and was reopened in 2001 to public in batches of 30. Each tier is surrounded by a number of small arches. I could feel the inclination more as I reached near to the top. The views from the top were like from any other higher place except for the Baptistery and Duomo, gigantic bells at the seventh tier and of course for the feel of tilt. After climbing down, we found our way in the Duomo or cathedral, the most magnificent feature of which is its golden roof. The roof has a stretch of lot of small gold-coated squares with amazing designs carved on them.
It was raining continually since the morning and luckily there was sudden sunshine along with the two rainbows forming a terrific backdrop for the leaning tower. After minutes of gaze through the camcorder viewfinder to catch this rare sight, it was the time for a Pizza and spaghetti lunch. Like Florence, Pisa also has River Arno dividing it with houses standing quiet on its either side. As a point of interest, Pisa is also known for having two years. When the rest of Europe has opted for Gregorian Calender in 1749 that starts on 1st January, Pisa stuck to 25th March. And according to a Pisan superstition seeing the tower before an exam will bring disastrous results.
It was almost dark when we returned back to Florence. The first place was Duomo, which is a huge cathedral that took 170 years to complete since it was started in 1296.The place is very unique with paintings of its only kind and lot of carvings on it. Next place was Piazza Del Signoria that has Michellangelo’s Statue of David, the fountain of Nepture and hundreds of awesome sculptures like the Persus, Hercules etc. Next to it is the Uffizi museum, the finest of all the European Art Museums. Right behind it is River Arno proud of having the Ponte Vecchio, one of its bridges having colourful houses on it with tiny windows that form the most picturesque panorama of Florence. We were lucky to find an Indian restaurant here called RamRaj. Florence for me probably was how an enthusiastic tourist from the west finds Hampi or Hardwar as.
A three-hour journey by EuroTrain via Bologna had put us in the next and the last high point, Venezia or Venice. This island town with 60,000 population is of the important places in the region called Veneto, others being Verona, the Dolomites etc.
The name Veneto comes from Veneti, the pre-Roman inhabitants of this region in 3 BC. People who sought refuge from Romans found Venice in 421 AD on a group of uninhabited islands. The town is built on foundations of brick work above piles of closely packed pinewood logs pitched into the ground for around 7.5 metres (they do not rot as there is no free oxygen). The Queen of Adriatic, Venice has grown to be an important place for the Mediterranean trade. This place was ruled by the French, Austrians and then became a part of Italy after losing its isolation in 1846 when a causeway has joined the town to the mainland and the Italian Rail network. The place mainly has six administrative islands and some lagoon islands. The main land is called mestri from which the daily businessmen of Venice come from. Main characteristic of Venice is its Grand Canal that flows through it the shape of mirrored “S”. The first three are bustling out of the six islands San Marco, San Polo, Santa Croce, Cannaregio, Dorsoduro, Castello.
Reaching the place itself was quite exciting with the train crossing the sea to the Cannaregio island, which has Santa Lucia Tren Station on FR (Ferrivia Railways). We found the grand canal just on stepping out the station and had to catch the city bus, no..sorry, the water bus no. 1 to reach Rialto, the commercial centre of Venice. Our hostel is at few minutes walk away on the San Polo Island from the famous Rialto Bridge. The ride of the waterbus in Venice would more or less be same as any other river cruise if not for those houses and bridges. What I liked in Italy the most is the Italian houses and windows, looking quiet with contrast colour combinations. Some of the houses on the Grand Canal have the water occupying their ground floors on high tide occurring every six hours, which is not uncommon for Venetians. At the lower places where water comes in often, wooden planks were placed to form a narrow walkway through the waters. First thing we did was to buy a pair of water boots and with our trousers tucked in we were less hesitant to walk in the water filled banks of the canal. Already started feeling Venice…! Grand Canal takes a steep right turn before the Rialto Bridge and turns right again around half-a-kilometre distance from the bridge. Typical sight from the Rialto Bridge has the Grand Canal with waterbus stops for waterbuses no. 1 and 82 on the left, with Water Taxis moving around and not to mention the Gondrolinas, the long beautifully decorated water boats taking graceful turns in the canal. There are also cops on Polizia Municipalizia boats. On either side of the canal are restaurants, vegetable and flower markets little inside. Rialto is famous of the three bridges on the Grand canal, the other two being the Scalzi bridge built in 1934 replacing the original wrought iron bridge just near the Tren Station and the wooden Acadamia Bridge, built in 1932. Rialto was built in 1588, after the collapse of the original wooden bridge. It is stone-built, with two footpaths on both the sides and a central thoroughfare with shops. This was the only bridge till 19th century connecting both the sides of the Grand Canal.
There are 142 other small bridges on Venice connecting around 114 islands. The churches, museums, restaurants etc along the canals are busy the whole day. Very true that every place interested me Venice, yet there are some that are in the top ten of what I wanted to visit. The first of them is the Piazza San Marco (St. Marks’s square) on San Marco Island adjacent to the sea, which is a rectangular open space with St. Mark’s Basilica, Campanile and Doge’s palace. The place also has a pillar with the emblem of Venice (Lion with Wings) on its top. The St. Mark’s church has four huge domes and lot of spikes that makes it look different from the normal Roman churches. The Golden Altar, St. Mark’s Treasury and the doorway carvings are quite impressive. Then we moved on to climb the Campanile, a bell tower that provides stirring views of the city and the lagoon. This is the restoration of the original Campanile collapsed in 1910. The square also has the Palazzo Ducale or Doge’s palace that was started in 9th century as a castle. Later it became the home of Doge, the aristocrat and also the Palace of justice. This has dark prisons and the famous Bridge of Sighs crossed by offenders on their way to the State Interrogators. The Great Council and the Hall of Ten are splendid with painted roofs. The courtyard has the Giants’ staircase and two bronze wellheads, considered to be the finest Venice. Here too, there is a Bocca De Loene, the Lion Head statue that was used for denouncing the tax evaders.
It was dark by the time we were out of Doge’s palace. We had thought it would be ideal to go on a Gondola trip. The Gondolina men or Gondoliers have a uniform of striped shirt with a hat and they stand on the left side of the boat to glide the boat. We have sailed below the Bridge of Sighs, then through lots of canals around San Marco greeting the houses of Marco Polo and Casanova (he too was imprisoned in the Doge’s palace but escaped to France). The ride in the calm canals between the tall walls and houses under the dark sky and dim bridges, with occasional screams by the Gondolier at the canal junctions was haunting. Mos of these intermediate canals are 2 to 3 meters deep. We were back at the St. Mark’s square to see its fuss in the night. It looked fabulous with the illumination all throughout the place. After visiting the Baroque church on Dorsoduro, we were back to our hostel at Rialto. We were given a three-bedroom apartment for that night just near the Grand Canal. Soon, we were on a hunt of the locally famous Indian Restaurant called Sri Ganesh, run by an Italian lady and found the food really amazing. Apartment near the Grand Canal and Nan with Dal Fry in Venice…what more to ask for? Venice at night looked quite romantic with the reflections of the houses and bridges in orange waters in the foreground of wooden logs raised in the banks to form the stand for gondrolinas. It is indeed the photographer’s delight; every place I looked was a perfect frame.
Next morning I came out to see the Rialto Markets. Fresh vegetables and sea food was just being displayed in the stalls for sale. We had then got back to San Marco Island to have a look at the glass manufacturing factories. One of the lagoon islands called Murano is famous for glassmaking since 13th century. Murano’s glass artisans were given unprecedented privileges but for those who left the island to find their own business, severe penalties were given, sometimes death. We have seen a demonstration in a factory (also a museum) where the artisan made a horse standing on its hind legs from a mass of molten glass in just half-a-minute using a forceps kind of tool. Amazing! We then moved on for some shopping. Venice stalls are full of glass-made objects and masks. The most colourful and legendary Venice Carnival falls in the month of February, 45 days before Easter. The multicoloured and decorative masks were found in almost every stall.
Lido is a 12 km long island with peaceful waterways and beach resorts and stands as a protection to Venice against the sea. Burano is the most colourful island with houses resembling cardboard pieces glued with colour papers. There is a tale about an Indian pepper merchant bringing a ship full of pepper to buy three houses on the Grand Canal. Such is the beauty of Venice. An ambassador of Charles VIII of France said that Grand Canal is “the most beautiful street in the world”. That afternoon we had left for Treviso Aeroporto (the other one being Marco Polo) for an hour-and-half flight to Stanstead, ending our holiday to the most historic country in Europe and carrying loads of memories, especially those balconies, doors and windows on the Grand Canal.