If there was ever a civilization that fascinated me, it’s the Roman civilization. From the charisma of Julius Caesar, the treachery of Brutus, the bitter battle between Romulus and Remus, the religious persecution by Nero, the rise of Christianity under Constantine, the dark ages plaguing the empire, the revival of civilization during the Renaissance which witnessed the birth of many geniuses like Michelangelo, Galileo, Botticelli, Raphael and finally to the unification of Italy by Victor Emmanuel, the history has enough drama, infidelity and twists to put any saas-bahu serial to shame. Add to that the natural beauty sprinkled with the ruins of the past, and you have got me hooked for life. Following my trip to Cappadocia and Istanbul last year which was the centre of the Byzantine Empire (erstwhile Constantinople), this was a perfect sequel to my journey through the history books.
That, dear readers (all 5 of you) is the gist of my 12-day vacation to Italy. But no, you will NOT be let off so easily, because now I shall proceed with the details of my impressions of each place I visited:
Venice: Touted as the most romantic city of the world, I found it rather over-hyped. Granted it’s beautiful and unique in the way it’s right in the middle of water, with all its Gondola cruises and vaporettos (water taxis), but it’s not something I would want to go back to.
My top picks: Marco Polo’s neighbourhood, Bridge of Sighs which led to the Doges Prison where Casanova spent his last days and Burano Islands.
Florence: This is where the Renaissance movement began and the city simply thrives in brilliant works of art. The birthplace of Michelangelo, it is also the place where John Milton finished his Paradise Lost and Dante wrote his The Divine Comedy. As we walked along the lit up streets at midnight, we could see the quiet city basking in the glory of past creations.
My top picks: The statue of David, the midnight view of the whole city from the Michelangelo Square and the Baptistry.
Siena-Tuscany-Pisa: Famous for its age-old rivalry with Florence, Siena is a small town which comes alive during the Palio (horse race) twice a year, while the scenic countryside of Tuscany took my breath away with all its vineyards, farms and lakes. San Gimgnano, with all its castles and fortresses, held my attention simply because of the ICECREAM BAR which was awarded for the WORLD’S BEST ICECREAM between 2006-09. As for the Leaning Tower of Pisa, for an architectural blunder, it makes for quite an impressive structure.
My top picks: Piazza del Campo, Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena (the oldest surviving bank in the world) and The Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Pompei-Sorrento-Capri: This is probably as good as it gets when you think about the combination of ancient history and nature at its virginal best. The ruins of Pompei (the bakery, the brothel, the public baths, the amphitheatre) all add upto a tapestry of a flourishing civilization before the explosion of Vesuvius in 79 AD destroyed it. The Sorrento coast with its breathtaking view of the Mediterranean surrounded by hills manages to soften even the most hardened cynic (me) while the day trip to the Amulfi Coast tells you why Capri is considered as one of the most romantic places in the world.
My top picks: The ruins of the Red Light Area in Pompei (some things never change), The Blue Grotto in Capri and the sunset in Sorrento
Rome: We had saved the best for the last, and we weren’t disappointed. It’s hard to imagine one of the major commercial cities in the world with all its traffic and busy streets could also be so effortlessly rich in history and culture. We marvelled the careless disdain with which the local people took for granted the Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the St. Paul’s Basilica and thousands of other artistic monuments, fountains and churches right in the middle of the city. Of course, a short drive away was The Vatican City which simply challenged our imagination, the Catacombs (underground tombs) which was a cold reminder of the persecution of the Christians, the Appian Way and the Aquaduct which act as a memento of the sophistication of an ancient civilization which managed to inspire modern technology.
My top Picks: The Sistine Chapel, Piazza Navona and the Colosseum
Other than the tourist destinations themselves, the country itself had its old world charm which gradually managed to weave us into its spell, despite our resistance to what we considered was a “typical lazy Western European country”:
The Food: For 12 days, we lived on the local delicacies of pizza, pasta, seafood, ice-cream and of course, wine. While some of our experiments went awry, and we had to settle for a McDonalds take-away once in a while, I am still savouring the taste of the artichokes in Rome, the soft cream in the cold coffee in Capri, the three-scoop ice-cream in San Gimignano and of course the Tuscan wine.
The Transport: While it was a challenge finding our way through the cobbled streets with an extremely confusing and intimidating map in hand or running from platform to platform with five pieces of luggage with no one to ask, it was quite liberating as we hopped from the Eurorail to the Orange Bus to the Hotel Shuttle, avoiding the cab drivers like a plague.
The Local People: Granted they didn’t speak much English, but they made themselves pretty clear as they cribbed about the economic breakdown, the high unemployment rate (about 10%), their disenchantment with the new regime (apparently Berlusconi, with all his indiscretions, was still a better administrator), their passion for football and their pride in their history and cultural lineage. We also met some illegal immigrants from Bangladesh selling fake Gucci bags or working for local restaurants, who confided in us (in Bengali) about how the downturn has affected them, with a lot of factories shutting down.
So there it was, my 12 days in Italy, which took me back in time, occasionally stopping by to let me savour its beauty, its romanticism and its heritage.