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When in Rome

Pantheon ceiling

Forty Years Ago

My nephew Zachary turns 40 in June and wanted to come to Italy for his birthday.  Zach is my youngest nephew so this milestone for him is a jolt to me.  Forty years?  You’ve got to be kidding me.  Now he’s a grown up, contributing member of society with a family.  Time – that thing that always lives with us but shows absolutely no respect for us.  It makes our skin sag and our eyes droop and children turn into adults.

Since June is a very busy month with tourists and a hot month in a country with marginal AC, they decided to come in May.  Wise call.  The summer in Italy is glorious with long, sunny days and breezy evenings.  Time seems to stand still when you’re looking up at the Florence Duomo against a clear blue sky with the Tuscan sun warming you.  If you close your eyes, you can imagine the clip-clop of the horses pulling carts of tourists are actually carrying Michelangelo to his studio behind the Duomo to coax David out of his marble shell.  Then you open your eyes and realize you and 5,000 of your best friends are jammed into the piazza, sandwiched between hawkers selling glow sticks and gooey toys that splat on the ground with a mechanical whine designed to drive parents crazy.

The absolute best time to take in the trifecta of Italian cities (Rome, Florence, and Venice) is winter.  Winter is when the streets are largely populated by locals bundled against the chilly air.  The museums are sparse and you don’t need “skip the line” tickets.  You can go right up to the Accademia in Florence and buy a ticket to see David.   You can stroll to the Vatican and walk into St. Peter’s without waiting in a line that snakes through St. Peter’s square for hours.  You can walk the near empty lanes that swirl around Venice and emerge on a Grand Canal that is void of the traffic that clogs it during summer.  But you risk the unpredictability of the Italian winter weather, where one minute the sun is shining and the next a cold rain is pelting you.  You risk many restaurants being closed for their own vacations.  It’s a trade-off, this time when crowds are gone but conditions are precarious.  But the reward is an almost personal tour of Italy where you get much more of a local flavor of what these magnificent cities are really like.

The next best times are spring and fall.  The earlier in the spring and the later in the fall are the best.  In spring you still have the unpredictability of the weather, but you have wisteria emerging and jasmine popping out and the days when the sun is shining are divine.  In fall, you may have some chilly nights, but the days are golden with vineyards starting to turn on their fall colors – yellow, gold, and burnished red.  Olive groves that are abuzz with the harvest and the magic of the sun slanting across the quilt of farmland are sights you will remember a lifetime.

Mid May is a good time to come.  Crowds are starting to gather, but it’s still manageable.  You have to do advance planning and get your tickets for the big attractions beforehand.  Reservations at restaurants are a must, but easy to get if you give yourself enough time.  So that’s when they decided to come.  And left it to me to plan their time.

I have to say that I felt a little pressure doing this.  Especially since it was to celebrate a life milestone.  It’s hard for me is to predict what other people will like about Italy.  This is a country with so many riches and opportunities that it’s hard to narrow it down.  Will they enjoy the churches, with their magnificent soaring ceilings – some frescoed, others cloaked in ornate wood carvings – or would they rather stroll through museums that house masterpieces of ancient or Renaissance art?  Do they want to see medieval hill towns that crown mountains like jewels or are they big city people?  And food – do they understand that Italian food is not the American interpretation that they’re used to or do they want to just be nourished without trying authentic Italian specialties?

They only had five days in Italy and wanted to see Florence and Rome.  So that gave me the direction I needed to plan a trip that would take in the magnificence of these cities.  Or at least try to.

Visiting the Renaissance

I pity the traveler who does not love Florence.  I’ve heard of people not loving it, or just thinking it was OK.  To me, Florence is magical place where you can feel the heartbeat of the Renaissance on each street.  The Renaissance changed the world and it started right in Florence.  And Florence wears that not as a weight but as angel wings.  It’s light and airy and wonderful and beautiful

We had a grand total of one day in Florence.  We started with David, because, well, it’s David.  David captures the Renaissance spirit in his determined eyes and strong, capable body.  He looks anything but the underdog with his 17 foot frame of masculine glory.  Betty has been to Italy a couple of times and has seen David before, but Zachary and Brittany were visiting for the first time.  What a glorious thing to see on your first Italian outing.  I tried really hard not to bore them with historical facts and folklore.  But they seemed interested.  A very good sign.  I can usually tell how someone will take to Italy by the way they react to David.

Then it was on to the Duomo museum, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.  With limited time, this is one of the best museums you can visit, in my opinion.  The original doors to the Baptistry (the Gates of Paradise, as they are known) and many other treasures reside there.  We spent a great deal of time trying to identify the various Bible stories depicted on those glorious bronze panels.  What a house of riches the Duomo museum is.

Climbing the Duomo, visiting the Baptistry, shopping on the Ponte Vecchio, having gelato, and aperitivos on a rooftop bar rounded out our Florence day.  It was good. and my tour group thoroughly enjoyed it.  The first night they arrived we were walking through the winding streets and Zachary raised his arms and just marveled at the buildings, the architecture, the antiquity of it all.  He bonded with Florence and was in awe of its glory.  Good start.


We had two and a half days in Rome, which seemed like a luxury compared to our one day in Florence.  But it’s Rome.  There’s no way to see it all in two and a half days.  So we did the best of tour.  Pantheon, Colosseum, Roman Forum, Vatican Museum, St. Peter’s, the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona, and Campo Fiera.  Circus Maximus, the keyhole, and the orange garden.  Trajan’s Marketplace and St. Peter in Chains church.  We did a lot.  For all the Renaissance glory that we experienced in Florence, we savored the ancientness of Rome.  The origins of Italy and the Empire that ruled the world for about 1,000 years – Rome.

Where Florence has a small city vibe, Rome is huge.  It’s spread out and congested and dirty.  It has a marginal subway system because every time they try and expand it, they uncover yet another archaeological site.  When the Roman empire fell, they built on top of Rome, so there are layers of past civilizations lying dormant under what we see today.  But Rome is unlike any other place on earth.  It’s a place where antiquity lives alongside the modern in a way that always makes me smile.  The masses of motor scooters, buses, cars, trams, and other modern wheeled conveyances whizzing past the Colosseum is an apt picture of what Rome is like.  I often wonder if those scooter riders ever glance up at the Colosseum and feel its majesty.  Because that’s what it is – majestic.  Probably not, because another hallmark of Rome is the insanity of its traffic and the tangle of roads and round abouts with no lines and seemingly no rules.  Taking your eyes off that even for the second it would take to steal a look at the Colosseum could prove catastrophic.

The Trip of a Lifetime

I love to see Italy through the eyes of others.  I love seeing their reactions to seeing things for the first time that I’ve seen dozens of times.  I love helping them to understand the things that make Italy unique.  And that’s especially true of family.  I’ve said before when we’ve had friends visit that I am honored to be in the same company as such fine people.  And those are people we chose to populate our lives.  Family is family and you have neither choice nor control regarding them.  I flew the coop at an early age and never lived around my family again.  We visited regularly and kept in touch, but I’ve missed that close connection that comes with day to day contact.

Now that the youngest of my parents’ grandchildren is firmly planted in middle age, I feel like the torch is being passed from me and my siblings to the next generation.  Just as it was from my parents to us.  That thing we know as time again pushing us along, sometimes where we don’t want to go.

I think they loved their Italian vacation and I hope they want to come again to experience even more of what I love about it.  Zach made great friends with Negronis, Brittany with Aperol Spritzes, and Betty with red wine.  They marveled at the art, they gaped at the churches, and they reveled in the spirit that is Italy.  Thank you, Zach, for having your birthday celebration in Italy.  Thank you, Betty, for arranging it all.  Thank you, Brittany, for being the light Zach needed in his life.  And thank you all for the wonderful visit, the laughter, and the love.

Zach and Brittany in Florence

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