After a quick tour of The Pantheon, a 2nd-century building with an amazing dome that was preserved by converting to a Christian church (which limited the pillaging),
we took a fast train to Venice. The cheap seats were sold out so we ended up in a private First Class cabin, just the four of us. It featured a non-functional entertainment system, snacks, drinks, and (best of all) access to the quiet lounge at the station while you wait an hour for the train because you thought they departed more frequently.
We arrived in Venice at dusk and took a water bus (Vaporetto) to Saint Mark’s Square, near our hotel. We had salami sandwiches at a restaurant recommended by Rick Steves and enjoyed our 19th gelato of the trip. We had planned on a gondola ride at dusk but didn’t make it in time. It was too cold anyway. This was the only city where we needed jackets. Wandering around town we came across a shop that did fish pedicures, where you put your feet in an aquarium and dozens of little Turkish sucker fish eat the dead skin off them. Wendy also declined this attraction. My feet felt like a million bucks.
Our Rick Steves guidebook had good advice on avoiding the worst of the lines. After visiting Florence later in the week, I appreciated Rome’s sites all the more because they are so huge. There are a bunch of tourists there but you don’t feel crowded because everyone can spread out. The Roman Forum was amazing and beautiful, especially imagining the soothsayer telling Caesar “Beware the Ides of March” right near where we stood.
After lunch we took a cab to The Vatican because our dogs were barkin’. We listened to Rick Steves describe the art and were amazed by the Sistine Chapel ceiling, where I couldn’t resist sneaking a GoPro photo despite the periodic “Shhhh… . Silencio… . No Photo… . No Video… Shhhh” over the loudspeaker. I enjoyed watching less-careful tourists get busted. One woman was immediately escorted out the emergency exit. You can take photos in most of the Vatican, just not of the Sistine Chapel.
We finished out our Vatican tour with a visit to St. Peter’s basilica and the Vatican Post where we sent postcards with Pope Francis stamps to our kids. Climbing the dome of St. Peter’s is well worth the cost and effort to get up close to the 7-foot-tall letters Tv Es Petrvs.
By the way, you have to dress appropriately to visit most of Italy’s churches. Guards deny entrance to men in shorts and women in sleeveless blouses. Some places allow shorts that go to the knee.
Walked past The Colosseum to Top Bike Tours. The bikes were nice (good shocks are helpful on cobblestone) and our tour guide Federico was awesome. We had one other couple in our group. An unfortunate highlight of the tour was when Federico had us stop at one of the many drinking fountains in the city and was about to explain to us how you can get a drink without a bottle when the other tourist tried to get down pushup-style to drink from the faucet and slipped onto his face and belly in the water. Then Federico showed how you can put your finger over the spigot and water will shoot up like a school drinking fountain.
We visited 14 sites by bike and stopped for gelati as well. I can’t recommend this highly enough. We felt like locals weaving in and out of traffic and pedestrians. Michael got scolded by a woman who said she has been sideswiped before and would appreciate a warning bell.
After lunch we took a train to Ostia Antica (“old mouth” of the Tiber River), a 2000-year-old sea port that was well-preserved by mud after being abandoned with the fall of Rome. We regretted not being able to fit in a visit to Pompeii (which would take a full day to travel there and back) but really enjoyed this similar glimpse into ancient times.
That evening we ate pizza at a place recommended by Federico, attended a short Vivaldi and Bach concert at St. Paul’s Within the Walls church, and visited Trevi Fountain along with every other tourist in Rome.
Day 1 We checked in at Casa Il Rosario, a Catholic nunnery-slash-hotel. The location was excellent, a couple of blocks from The Colosseum. The nuns made a mean breakfast with homemade yogurt, granola, and pastries. The hot chocolate machine was amazing and so was the lingonberry juice.
We walked to the Borghese Gallery. The Borgheses were a rich noble family in Italy since the 12th Century. We wandered among Bernini sculptures, Caravaggio and Raphael paintings, and Wendy fell asleep on some steps.
[amazon template=iframe image right&asin=1631211838] Throughout our trip we listened to Rick Steves’ audioguides on our iPhones. I highly recommend them for giving some context and interesting tidbits about what might otherwise become an endless parade of statues and paintings.
After the gallery we had time for a quick visit to the Capuchin Monk crypt, a monastery where the monks decorated walls and ceilings with bones and bodies of their deceased brethren. Wendy didn’t go in because she is still recovering from the Paris Catacombs 16 years ago, but I walked through the crypt part twice before they turned off the chant soundtrack and started flashing the lights to get the tourists to leave. A high-pressure saleswoman convinced me to buy a postcard from the gift shop. Everything in the shop was blessed by the monks, she said. She was disappointed I didn’t buy a book with no price tag on it.
We crashed for the night and most of us woke up at 3am with jet lag.
We visited Rome, Florence, Venice, and Pisa last week. I’m knee-deep in photos and videos from four different cameras, plus the ones others took. While you wait with bated breath for the usual video summary, here are some photos I liked out of the GoPro camera. I found a couple of cool Lightroom presets last year that really bring out the colors from the usually-dull GoPro images.
Here’s an example. This is Cathedral Square in Pisa, with the famous leaning tower: