And Why I’ll Probably Never Travel Independently Again…
I had no idea how absolutely incredible Italy would be until I was there. Comparable to Paris’s Louvre, I found myself, more than once, near tears at the sight of something I’d studied or when doing something I never imagined I’d do in my lifetime. I mentally crossed things off my bucket list with the same rapidity I was adding them. Everything you think Italy is, it is, and much more.
Going on a guided vacation, I never worried about what I might miss or navigating my way through a foreign country. Another huge plus? The people I met were lovely and as full of joy as I was to be there. The experiences I had on Insight’s Italian Intermezzo are ones I will never forget.
Let’s start with Venice. Sigh, Venice. Silty green water laps along its walled-embankments as people stream along the top. Gondolas lazily weave on the small water-alleyways under the shadows of bridges and centuries-old, salt-dusted buildings. The light, unreal and tinted golden-rose, plays off the ripples, walls, and faces of Venice.
Waking up in Venice proper isn’t something everyone gets to do, most visitors come in and out on the taxis for the day. Both days in Venice were like that; getting to go places and see things I normally wouldn’t have known about as an independent traveler.
We took a stroll with a Local Expert, a “real” Venetian, through her neighborhood. She pointed out her favorite ancient doorbells and rooftop gardens. We crossed bridges and counted islands, entered sun-lit squares with timeworn wells and towering churches.
We traveled through the lagoon by a wood-clad boat to eat an amazing lunch in Burano, full of local specialties. The town of Burano is indescribable, its colorful reflections begging for photographs, a twin of the city reflecting in its canals. The amaretto from lunch softening our moods as we slowly strolled past one beautiful building after another.
We returned to the island of Venice as dusk began to set in, again the light in Venice creates a golden hour of legends – warm and blushing, illuminating everything. We strolled through the squares to St. Mark’s, all eyes skyward as we tried to take in everything.
Walking around St. Mark’s square, nearly abandoned, as the late winter sun set behind it’s glinting churches, filled me with absolute delight as I giddily realized, “I know this square; I know the exact photo you take here!” Bucket list experience added, bucket list experience checked off! That’s Italy.
And all this, before our serenaded gondola ride.
Leaving, I was heartbroken at our departure, I couldn’t imagine another place would come close to the way I felt about Venice.
Florence and Tuscany
And then I walked out into the sun in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria. How do you explain the wonder of coming across, as if by great fortune, Neptune’s Fountain, the sculptures of the Loggia dei Lanzi, the hammered gold of Ghiberti’s recreated Gates of Paradise, the pink and green marble of Santa Croce? The city of Dante, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and the best tomatoes of my life; Florence and Tuscany, full to the brim, don’t ask you to love them, they demand it.
And I did.
I sat on a first-century wall eating olives in the sun, enjoying the warmth and taking in the variety of greens the hills of Tuscany offer. I walked slow circles around Michelangelo’s beautiful David, marveling at the room built just for him in the Uffizi Gallery. I treasured my sour-cherry gelato from one of Italy’s most famous shops in San Gimignano.
I discovered my favorite Chianti during dinner at Machiavelli’s estate, over food I’ll attempt to replicate for the rest of my life. Crushed olive tapenades, Panzanella salad, cannellini beans, warm tomato spreads, crusty breads, prime rib that took two men to carry it to our tables, and the wine, my goodness the wine.
Trust me when I say, if you like food and art, Florence is heaven.
Leaving Florence and Tuscany behind was almost too much, and I vowed to return. Luckily for us, Rome awaited.
A quick note before Rome though. Italian highway autostops, mainly Autogrills, are nothing like the convenience stores or rest-stops of the U.S. Different from anything you’ll experience back home, the food is often incredible, ordering coffee has its own rules of etiquette, and you’re likely to find the parking lot full of Porches over semi-trucks. Most of them are built so that you must walk through the whole place, eyeing local goods and commodities, before checking out. I still miss standing at the counter and quickly drinking a perfect Italian macchiato paired with a flakey brioche.
Okay, onto Rome.
“When in Rome!” We waited the whole trip to say that and happily cheered it as we entered the bustling city. Rome is a dazzling milieu of ancient structures and modernity. Every building draws your eye, each street feels as if it’s been there through the ages of time. I remember coming across a column on a corner, stained dark around the bottom from years of being feet from the road. I thought to myself, that’s probably older than anything in America, and it probably was.
That first night in Rome, we walked with our Local Specialist through narrow, cobblestone streets to the Spanish Steps and overlooked the beautiful square below. The thing about these Local Specialists is that they are truly local. It’s like walking along the streets of Rome with an old friend who knew all the secrets and best places. She shared memorable antidotes about Piazzas and fountains, things I would have never known without her. She taught us the perfect spot, away from the crowd, to toss our coin into Trevi Fountain and ensure our return to her city.
She walked us through busy streets to the Pantheon, its lights just starting to glow as we walked in. As the darkening blue sky hinted from the skylight at its center, she told us its history in respectful and hushed whispers. We thanked our luck that, later, she was also our guide through the Colosseum, the Vatican, and St. Peter’s Basilica; as I can’t now imagine these places without her.
The next morning, I found myself in St. Peter’s Basilica sending up as many prayers as I could. It is difficult for me to describe the sense of belief one navigates through upon entering this holy place. I joined the short line to touch the worn-down bronze foot of St. Peter, his right toes thinned by centuries of pilgrims doing the same. We were honored to have special access to the famous Bramante Staircase. We took our time going up, twisting and turning until we reached the top and the breathtaking views over Rome and the Vatican estate.
It was at this point, looking down the empty ramp we had just ascended, that it dawned on me. We had first access to the museums, with maybe 200-300 other people. We were alone on the staircase looking over Rome. The museums were almost empty. I could stroll from wall to wall of paintings without bumping into another soul. Being shown the best of Italy, in March, on a guided vacation is absolutely sublime.
In the nearby Vatican Palace, the Sistine Chapel waited. One of the world’s most famous artworks, our Local Expert explained how Michelangelo wanted to depict the fall of man. At the same time, should you choose to look at it the other direction, you can always find your path back to God. It was overwhelming to take in, it was perfect. I sat down and tilted my head back to take in both journeys. My eyes hurt, attempting to stretch, trying in vain to see it all. As I sat along the edge, I turned my head to notice the minute details on the frescoed tapestries “hanging” the wall behind me. That’s when the tears started. I was actually seeing the Sistine Chapel, with my own eyes.
That last night, our last night together as a group, was something truly special. I felt like we’d been together for ages and, at the same time, not nearly long enough. Over our beautiful meal, we laughed, talked about our plans back home, and ignored the creeping nostalgia of already missing Italy.