Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities: Florence & Rome

This Italian series needs to be wound up, as indeed the whole trip has now wound up; I am writing this back in lovely Kingston Beach where the sky is blue and the air is pure.

After the peaceful byways of Tuscany and Umbria, Orvieto seemed terribly busy on a Sunday afternoon, but as soon as we arrived in Florence (by train) we realised that we had not until then seen anything that would classify as a real crowd. It was, to use the Scots word, fair hoaching with people, many of them in tour groups, following their leaders, who held up a variety of signs and symbols to distinguish their group from everyone else's. And it was so NOISY; the ambulances had particularly loud sirens, especially when confined in narrow streets, and they were on the move all the time (presumably collecting the remains of pedestrians who tried to cross the road).

The duomo in Florence.
Not so busy.

Florence from the Bardini Gardens.

The old centre of Florence is easy to walk around and it all revolves around the huge dome of the duomo with Giotto's bell tower alongside it. But if you want to see the art treasures in the Uffizi gallery or David in the Galleria dell'Accademia you have to be prepared to queue, or get tickets in advance. We queued for David (less than an hour) but even our pre-booked tickets for the Uffizi didn't eliminate the queue, it was just a whole lot shorter than the regular entrance one.

The Ponte Vecchia.
Note the enclosed corridor that took the Medici big wigs from their Uffizi to the palace, a kilometre away across the river, so that they didn't have to mix with the common folk.

Rondels at the Spedale degli Innocenti (1498).
The orphans hospital.

I was surprised by my reaction to seeing many of the iconic works of art; not many of them really stopped me in my tracks, perhaps because the images were so familiar, or perhaps because it was hard to filter them out from the throngs of people. It was often the unfamiliar or unexpected objects that had greater impact than the famous pieces, and these were sometimes in the quieter churches or museums. So Fra Angelico's Annunciation for us had much more impact than the famous Botticelli works (Primavera and the Birth of Venus), though walking up to David between the rows of Michaelagelo's uncompleted works was undeniably impressive.

Climbing the dome of the duomo was an experience; how did they do all that back in the 13th century? We went up on our last day in Florence and it was good to be able to pick out all the places we had visited. We also appreciated the fly-by of a Peregrine Falcon that was apparently nesting in Giotto's bell tower next door!

Climbing the dome.
450-odd steps between the inner and outer domes.

Thanks, Laura, for enhancing my experience.

Frescoes inside the dome.
They don't rate highly in the fresco stakes, apparently.

Giotto's tower from the top of the dome.

We went from Florence to Rome by Eurostar train: very smooth and very fast, and found our way quite easily to our apartment, not far from the Spanish Steps, using the metro. It took a while to get in contact with the agents, but eventually Constanza turned up (on her scooter, of course) and let us into a little third floor apartment with the smallest bathroom in the world. From there we made our excursions into bustling Rome, returning in the late afternoons for antipasti and a drink, and to catch the arrivo of the day's stage of the Giro d'Italia.

Jeannie finding refuge in busy Florence station.

Seriously cool trains in Italy.

Via Zuchelli, view from our apartment.

Across the road was a depot for the city cleansing department. They finished late and started early.

Rome's smallest bathroom.

The shower wasn't quite in the toilet.

All ready for an exciting stage finish in the Giro d'Italia.

Although there were huge numbers of tourists we got more of an impression of being in a working city than we did in Florence. The drivers hurtling down the streets were clearly locals and it took us a while to brave a road crossing at anywhere else but the lights. Ordinary pedestrian crossings are generally faintly marked, and that reflects the attitude of drivers to them. One guide book said that the safest way to cross was with a group of nuns, but we learned to walk boldly, face down the oncoming drivers, never stop and get used to their very short stopping distances.

Must be Rome: that's me at the Trevi Fountain.

I saved my coins for more gelato.

The dome of the Pantheon.

Built in the 1st century AD. That's a hole in the top, not a window.

The Roman forum and associated temples.

The Coliseum.

Popular, but the scene of an awful lot of human misery.

Roman street artist.

I thought this one was worth a Euro.

Six days didn't give us nearly enough time to see and do all that Rome has to offer. You could spend all that time in the Vatican Museum for a start. We spent a full day there, getting in after an hour and half of queuing. There are several potential routes through the vast collection, all leading to the Sistine Chapel eventually, but we saw many beautiful things en route, such as a collection the Faberge Easter eggs that the Romanov family gave each other; exquisite is the appropriate word. We also wanted to see the Etruscan collection, having been poking around in their tombs back in Tuscany, and there were the unexpected surprises such as a lovely little pieta by Van Gogh that I have never seen reproduced anywhere. But for me the day's highlight was next door in St Peters: Michaelangelo's pieta that portrays Mary as a young girl.

Faberge egg, given as an Easter present to one of the Romanov tsars.

The carriage fits inside.

Michaelangelo's Pieta in St Peters.

Some distance away, and behind glass, but still most affecting.

Pieta by Van Gogh in the Vatican Museum.

The "Map Corridor" on the way to the Sistine Chapel.

Etruscan shields in the Vatican Museum.

And then there were all the antiquities. The forums and the Coliseum were much as expected (and when you think about it, the Coliseum is really rather nasty), but the Pantheon was magnificent. And a real surprise was the archaeological site at Ostia Antica, the old port at what was once the mouth of the Tiber. The town was abandoned in the Third Century and became covered in river silt until it began to be excavated in the 1800s. Now it is comparable with Pompeii and Herculaneum for its preservation as an intact Roman town. It was fascinating to walk down the streets and to be able to identify shops, warehouses, a bar, an amphitheatre, underground Mithraic temple etc, in a site that covers more than 30 hectares. And it wasn't very busy, apart from numerous local school groups; it would have been a perfect day out but for the steady stream of aircraft flying low overhead to land at Fiumicino.

The amphitheatre at Ostia Antica.

The lower seats still have their marble covering.

Mosaic on the floor of a shipping agent's office, Ostia Antica.

There were a whole lot of these around a square behind the amphitheatre.

Mithraeum, Ostia Antica.

The Mithraic cult was widespread in Roman times.

Ancient trattoria, Ostia Antica.

Wonderfully preserved: marble bar and counters, wall paintings of food.

Roman barmaid.

Not an original, I think.

The most intimate places still preserved.

It works, too (but the seat was very cold!)

Gastronomically, we did better in Florence than in Rome, mostly because it was hard to get out of Tourist Land in the latter. But on our last night we finally took up Costanza's suggestion of a place in Trastevere, across the river, and had a fine meal. We were squeezed in at 8.00 when it opened, and when we left there were 20 people waiting for a table. The food was simple but delicious, and I wish I had tried the deep-fried artichokes that our neighbour had, and described as "spectacular".

Ahh! Gelato. So good.

And so we left Italy. Our trip wasn't quite over, however. We had a few days with Jean's sister in Suffolk and finished up with a couple more days chasing birds in north Norfolk, where we ran into a couple who had been with us on the Morocco tour. The weather had been very good throughout the trip (rainjackets twice in 10 weeks), but as we drove to Heathrow there was heavy rain, which at least meant that we could leave with a little less regret.


  1. What a jam-packed 10 weeks away! It's lovely to have you both back :)

  2. I love Rome! All of your pictures bring back fond memories x