As you may have gathered from where we left off, our transition from south to central Italy had a shaky start. An error at the train statin sent us to the wrong platform and as a result, we missed the express train and ended up on a slower and slightly dodgier service to Rome. We eventually made it arriving at midnight and after a good nights sleep, we were ready to explore Italy’s capital.
Exploring Vatican City
Day 1 in Rome was spent not technically in Rome itself but in Vatican City. While we didn’t see Papa Franco, we did have a good look around his stomping ground. We started with the Vatican Museums which houses so many exhibitions that it would take you 12 years to see them all. Having only a few hours not years we chose to follow the suggested ‘best of itinerary’ which lead us past some fantastic sculptures including a 4th Century BC bronze representation of the sun-god Apollo and an enormous basin made from a single piece of red porphyry stone.
Next, we visited the four Raphael Rooms in what were the private apartments of Pope Julius II. Painted in the early 1500s by Raphael and some of his students, the real standout was in the final room titled La Scuoala d’Atene (The school of Athens). The painting features philosophers and scholars gathered around Plato and Aristotle. The lone figure in front of the steps is thought to be Michelangelo while the figure of Plato is said to be a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci. Raphael also included a self-portrait in the lower right corner (he’s the second figure from the right).
After absorbing Raphael’s work we found ourselves in the Sistine Chapel. Painted by Michelangelo over 4 years from 1508, the 800-sq-metre ceiling is painted with frescos that represent nine scenes from the book of Genesis including “Creation of the Sun”, “Creation of Adam” and “Temptation”. The chapel’s west wall displays Michelangelo’s Last Judgement which depicts the souls of the dead being torn from their graves to face the wrath of God. This subject was chosen by Pope Paul III as a warning to Catholics to toe the line. Unfortunately, photos are not permitted in the Sistine Chapel so you will have to take our word for it, but this really is one of the most breathtaking pieces of art we have seen.
Our morning in the Vatican ended appropriately with a visit to St. Peter’s Basilica. We spent a fair amount of time exploring the elaborately decorated 15 000-sq meter interior which contains the bones of the saint himself. The walls are adorned with artwork but the 119m high dome is what really catches your eye, both inside the Basilica and when you’re outside in St Peter’s Square. Once again we have Michelangelo to thank as he was responsible for the design of the dome. After a busy morning taking in the Catholic sights, it seemed like a good time for some Gelato in the Holy City before heading back to central Rome.
An afternoon stroll around classic Rome
After a morning packed with religion, art and history our afternoon was an easy one consisting of a stroll around some of Rome’s best sites including; the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona (with all it’s street artists), and a visit to the Pantheon. We also paid a visit to a very strange but interesting church the Chiesa di Santa Maria Della Concezione. From the outside it doesn’t look like much but once you enter and step down into the cemetery below the church you will find one of the most shall we say unique decorating styles in existence. Between 1528 and 1870 the Capuchin monks used the bones of 4000 of their deceased brothers to decorate the crypts. Some might describe the crypts as creepy but we think creative is a better word. It’s not often that you see femur bones used to make chandeliers. A message in the last room reads: ‘What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be. Happy holidays!’ Extremely odd, but very interesting. If you are ever Rome, this church is worth a look!
As you would expect in Italy our day ended with food: bruschetta, spaghetti carbonara and gelato, so much gelato.
The next day was one spent largely in the sun with a visit to the Colosseum first on our list. It’s no wonder that this is the number one tourist attraction in Rome not only because after nearly 2000 years and multiple earthquakes, it stills stands tall surrounded by metropolitan Rome but this is the home of the Gladiator! The arena could once hold 50 000 spectators and is known to have held events that lasted over 100 days and involved 9000 gladiators taking on 10 000 wild animals. A set of trapdoors on the floor of the arena once lead to underground chambers where the animals would be hoisted up in cages and released into the arena ready to take on their opponents.
Opposite the Colosseum is Palatine Hill consisting of ruins set amongst pine trees and offering fantastic views over Rome. According to legend this is where Romulus killed his twin and founded Rome in 753BC although there is no evidence to prove this. There is however evidence of human habitation dating back to the 8th century BC and Palatine Hill was once Rome’s poshest neighborhood. We made our way through the ruins admiring what was left such as a stadium, Roman baths, some houses and a palace. After this we continued into the Roman Forum which is an impressive but rather confusing set of ruins that once consisted of marble clad temples and public spaces dating from the 7th century BC. While there are lots of impressive sights such as the treasury and the Basilica di Massenzio the Temple of Julius Caesar is probably the most impressive in a historical sense as he was cremated where the temple now stands.
After spending all day in the sun we were ready for some shade so continued onto the Capitoline, the worlds oldest museum founded in 1471. A highlight of the museum is large head, hand and foot that formed part of the 12m high statue of Constantine found in the Roman Forum.
After a spending a few hours at the museum, it was dinner time and this meant pizza: Rome style. There is a debate in Italy over the origin of the Pizza, both Rome and Naples claim the title, so we had to compare the two and make our own minds up regarding which is tastier. This has sparked a debate between us as Matt thinks Rome makes a better Pizza while Hannah is all for Naples. Luckily, we still have a while to sort this domestic out as it will be months before we have access to an oven to cook one!
Our time in Rome was nearly complete but on our final day we managed to pay a visit to the Bocca dells Verita (The Mouth of Truth) a round piece of marble one used as an ancient manhole cover. Legend says if you put your hand in the carved mouth and tell a lie it will bite your hand off. Lucky for us we are honest people so our hands are still attached. We also paid a visit to the oldest bridge in Rome and the 12th century Basilica di San Clemente which was built over a 4th century church which stands over a 2nd century pa temple and a 1st century roman house. Why they continued building on top of each other is beyond us, but it does make for a fascinating visit as you descend below the foundations of the 12th century church you enter the 4th century church and down another set of steps to the temple and so on. Beneath it all you can hear a subterranean river running through a roman republic-era drain.
Finished in Rome the next day we continued onto Florence where we paid a visit to the city’s most famous landmark the Duomo with its iconic red tiled dome, bell tower and beautiful pink, white and green marble facade. A walk through town took us to the Piazza Della Signiroria with the Neptune fountain and the Palazzo Veccho or old palace of Florence with a much photographed copy of Michelangelo’s David out the front. We continued onto the Ponte Vecchio Florence’s iconic bridge which once housed the towns butcher shops but is now lined with jewelry stores selling gold. The bridge was built in 1345 and was the only one to survive the Second World War. Last stop for the day was Florence’s 16th century market place Mercato Nuovo to rub the bronze snout of II Porcellino (The Piglet). Legend says you must rub his snout to ensure a return trip to Florence. Hannah rubbed it last time she was in Florence and she came back, therefore it must work!
Cooking up a storm
If you haven’t realised yet we love food. In particular we love Italian food so while in Tuscany, the heart of the Italian cookbook, it seemed appropriate that we undertook a cooking class and learnt how to prepare some local cuisine. Our lesson started with a walk through the local food market whilst tasting a variety of foods such as parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, pesto and olive oil. We also learnt some useful facts about the products and how to use them such as:
– A good balsamic vinegar that can be used on everything such as salads, meat and bread should be around 8 years old.
– Don’t cook with extra virgin olive oil as it is more expensive than other varieties and is best used drizzled on products just prior to eating.
– When it comes to parmesan cheese the older the better! Italy doesn’t tend to export parmesan that is 30+ years old but you should be able to find 24-year-old in Australia and this is the best type for you pasta!
– don’t add salt to food until its nearly cooked as it dries out the meat.
After purchasing our ingredients, we headed back to the kitchen to prepare the food. First on the agenda was tiramisu. Once this was left in the fridge to set, we turned our attention to the pasta. We started making our own dough and once it was wrapped in plastic and slowly rising we prepared some bruschetta with fresh tomatoes and plenty of olive oil. Quite hungry at this stage, we couldn’t wait so we enjoyed it immediately with some local red wine.
Once our dough was ready, it was time to get out the rolling pins. Some members of the class excelled at this stage (Matt) while to the dismay of others, chef Giovanni had to step in and assist (Hannah). Eventually, we had some dough that was ready so first made ravioli which we filled with creamy ricotta cheese. We used the rest of the dough to cut thick strips of pasta called pappardelle. The final step was the sauce. We started with a traditional Tuscan bolognese sauce for the pappardelle made with beef, pork, carrot, celery, purple onion, tomato paste and red wine. While we left this to simmer away we made a butter and sage sauce for the ravioli. After hours of slaving away in the kitchen, it was time to sit down and enjoy our creation and we certainly did just that! We can’t wait to get home and cook for you all!
With full bellies and light heads there was one more famous Florence attraction we had yet to set our eyes on… Michelangelo’s statue of David! Carved from a single block of marble the statue of the nude warrior was defiantly worth the visit and was a great way to finish our time in this wonderful city.
Under the Tuscan Sun
Wednesday started with a new challenge, driving in Italy. After collecting our Fiat we headed off with Matt behind the wheel, destination: Tuscany. We decided to pay a visit to Sienna first, to see it’s much talked about Duomo. This white, red and green marble cathedral was constructed in 1215 and the interior feature a marble floor decorated with 56 panels depicting historical and biblical subjects. One of the best churches in Italy.
It wasn’t long before we were back on the road heading towards a farm in nearby San Gimignano called Fattoria Poggio Alloro. This organic farm produces all their own food; that’s everything from grapes for the wine, to olives for the oil and cows for the beef. We purchased a bottle of wine and sat on the terrace taking in the breathtaking views of the Tuscan country side and watching the sun set. When dinner time came around, the hosts sat all the guests together at long tables, we were with 4 Italians visiting from Venice and a young couple from South England. The Italians didn’t speak English and vice versa so it made for an interesting night, but luckily the food helped pass the time and somehow we all understood each other. This was without a doubt the best meal of our lives! It started with bruschetta, fried bread, salami, cheeses and prosciutto, The first course was risotto served with red wine and fresh bread, second course was roast chicken with tomato salad served with white wine, desert consisted of a sweat desert wine with biscotti followed by a shot of the very Italian limoncello (a lemon flavoured italian liqour) and a true Italian espresso coffee. We went to bed with very satisfied taste buds and couldn’t sleep as our bellies were so full (or maybe it was the coffee).
The leaning tower of Pisa
After returning our car the next day, we made our way to the town of Pisa with one thing in mind – to see the famous leaning tower. First impressions; “man does it lean!” It was really obvious when you stood in front and looked at it straight on. We took turns posing for the compulsory pushing the tower over / holding the tower up photos before heading to the base to climb the 294 steps. We felt like we were drunk as we climbed the steps as the lean was very noticeable from the inside and you constantly find yourself leaning against the walls. The views from the top over-looking the town of Pisa were gorgeous, as they offered an endless view of terre cotta roofs.
After a busy day we had one more train to catch, this time to Cinque Terre on the Italian Rivera, where we would begin our final week in this amazing country.