Travel Dates: September 18 - October 10, 2021
When our cruise through the Greek Islands canceled (due to Covid) only two months prior to departure, we were stuck with two choices: postpone until the following year, or find a different destination to travel. Enter, Italy!
Since we would be arriving from Croatia (see Croatia blog post, here), we replaced our Croatia/Athens flight with a flight from Dubrovnik to Rome at 8:00 am, via Croatia Airlines, on the only scheduled direct flight. Most airlines advise arriving at an airport two hours prior to your scheduled departure and Croatia Air was no different. Except, that the airport check-in counters didn't actually open until 6:30 am and the few workers bustling about would not answer any questions until they opened so we found ourselves waiting in the wrong line. But, no matter, we were soon checked in and on our way...via a small prop plane to Rome.
We arrived in Rome without incident or lines. Our vaccine cards and negative test results were viewed quickly and efficiently. A cab to our hotel, the Bridge Suites, ran about $50 US.
We were dropped off about a block away from an entirely scaffolded building which, on approach, looked about ready to fall. We entered with some trepidation and found our way to a rickety elevator (which I’d read was lucky to be working) and then to the 4th floor. Oasis! We were greeted by a charming young lady who escorted us to our small, but very clean and well-appointed rooms. Sometimes location is everything, and the Bridge Suites, located on the Tiber River, was in a great spot for sightseeing. Within a 15-minute walk: The Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica, Castel Sant' Angelo, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Piazza Navona and Piazza di Popolo. The Hop-on-Hop-off bus stop was right around the corner.
Castel Sant' Angelo, a two-minute walk from the Bridge Suites. Originally built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself and his family, it was later used by the Popes as a fortress and castle, and is now a museum.
Italy by the Numbers
6 Cities - Rome, Florence, San Marino, Venice, Cinque Terre and Pisa
6 Guided tours - Vatican, Colosseum, Florence, Venice, Cinque Terre and Pisa
6 Train Trips
7 UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Rome, Vatican City, Historical Center of Florence, Piazza del Duomo, Pisa, Cinque Terre, Venice, Republic of San Marino.
58 Miles walked over 9 days
239,440 total steps. Average 10,800 steps per day
Recommended: Click on the pictures to enlarge them.
We took two professionally guided tours in Rome: The Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica with Project Expedition (who used Walks LLC) at $108 pp in 2021 and the Colosseum Underground Experience with City Wonders ($93.21 pp).
The Vatican and St. Peter’s: I chose the Early Entrance, skip-the-line tour, which included an American Breakfast on the terrace of the Vatican Museums one hour prior to opening to the public. Highly recommend! This is not something to skimp on. We had an excellent guide, the lovely Barbara, who was extremely knowledgeable, friendly and fun. Proof of vaccine and masks were required.
The Vatican holds one of the largest collections of artworks in the world. The tour was at least 4 hours; lots of walking, lots of stairs and covered much of the Vatican Museum, including parts of: the Pio-Clementino Museum of sculpture, the Gallery of Geographical Maps, Raphael’s Rooms and the Spiral Staircase. We also spent some time in St. Peter’s Square, which is a site to behold all on its own.
Fun fact about the obelisk at the center of the square: There are more erect obelisks from Egypt in Rome than there are anywhere else in the World, including Egypt. They were all brought to Rome by various Roman Emperors. This particular example, often called the Vatican Obelisk and sometimes Caligula’s Obelisk, is the only ancient Egyptian obelisk in Rome to have remained standing since Roman times. (Credit: Archeology-travel.com)
St. Peter's Square. When the Pope holds a Papal Audience, the square can hold as many as 80,000 worshipers . The tour also included skip-the-line entry to St. Peter’s Basilica where you can remain inside at your leisure at the end of the tour.
As time was short and feet were sore, we opted to take a tour around Rome on the Hop On/Hop off bus in the afternoon. There was a great deal of traffic, but although slow, we found the Roman drivers as much fun to watch as the impressive city sites.
Scenes from the Hop-on-Hop-Off Bus: The domes of the twin churches near Piazza Venizia, the 1906 Hotel Excelsior in Rome's city center, the Altar of the Fatherland (built to honor Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of a unified Italy), the original site of Circus Maximus and Palentine Hill in the background and brave (or stupid) bike riders in traffic.
We got off the Hop On bus a short distance from our hotel so we could walk and absorb the sites and sounds of the local streets. We stumbled on a great restaurant, Taverna Ripetta, and enjoyed some delicious Italian pasta.
We spent our second full day in Rome on yet another excellently guided tour of the Colosseum with City Wonders. We opted for skip-the-line and special access to the underground and arena floor, the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. Well worth the cost of admission and our guide, Davide, was excellent. Masks and Vaccine cards mandatory. Whether due to Covid, booking off-season or both, we enjoyed few crowds as we toured through the impressive ruins. Touring the underground was especially interesting and Davide was a wealth of entertaining stories (some a bit gruesome) and historical knowledge. This is another tour I would not skimp on – get the full package to get the full affect.
Early access, Covid and off-season all contributed to a very pleasant, uncrowded experience. The tour of the underground is well worth the extra expense. This area was where the gladiators and wild animals waited prior to their "performance" and were lifted to the arena floor by a complex elevator system powered by slaves.
Built in 70 AD, the Colosseum is the largest ancient amphitheater ever built, and is still the largest standing amphitheater in the world today. After touring the upper levels (stairs!) we continued to Palantine Hill, which was where the Imperial Palaces and homes of the wealthy resided.
We probably could have used another day or two in Rome with either nothing scheduled or to fit in a tour to the Aqueducts via bicycle that sounded interesting. Next time!
NOTE: City Wonders Company. When booking the tours for Croatia and Italy, I made sure that each could be cancelled at least 24 -48 hours in advance, just in case. I missed the small print for the Colosseum City Wonders tour that stated that the tour was not fully refundable and only 50% of the tour cost would be refunded if cancelled 7 days in advance. No other tour company we booked with on this 15-day excursion had that stipulation. As it happened, it worked out fine, but it is a reminder to read the small print thoroughly, especially when traveling through a Pandemic.
I used Trenitalia.com to look up train schedules and rates. The Express Train from Rome to Florence (no stops) took about 1 ½ hours and cost $61.55 for “Premium Class” which included comfy seats, chargers and WiFi. We had a little trouble understanding the ticket machine (in Italian) until a lady came up and basically took over. At first, we thought she was a train station employee but then realized that she was providing the help for a tip. Either way, it was helpful!
Not all trains are equal! Our first trip, Rome to Florence, was a super-clean, well appointed train, with USB ports, comfy chairs and snacks. Future trains, while perfectly fine, did not have the same amenities. Note to self: travel with the converter within easy reach!
Our apartment was just a short walk from the train station, but we didn’t know that until we hired a taxi to make the less-than 5-minute journey. Later we learned we could walk to the station within 5 minutes.
View of the street below from our apartment and the narrow streets through local neighborhoods leading to the center of town.
A late afternoon walk revealed how close we were to the main plaza, the Duomo and Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral. Turning a corner and coming upon these massive structures at dusk was nothing short of breathtaking.
The following morning, we took a short walking tour with City Wonders (through Project Expedition), meeting at Pointe Vecchio Bridge. The name means "old bridge" and was thought to be built by the Romans in Medieval times. It spans the Arno River at its narrowest point, connecting places of high tourist interest on the two banks of the river: piazza del Duomo, piazza della Signoria on one side with the area of Palazzo Pitti and Santo Spirito on the other.
The original tenants of Pointe Vecchio Bridge (10/11th century) were tanners, farmers and butchers. They have been replaced by jewelers, art dealers and souvenir vendors.
From there we toured the Piazza del Duomo, Piazza della Repubblica, the Gallerie Degli Uffizi and the Piazza della Signoria; ending with a skip-the-line, unescorted tour of the Accademia Gallery to see the Statue of David. Our guide, Claudia, did an acceptable job with the history and narration.
Piazza del Duomo, Giotto's Bell Tower and Palazzo Vecchio, stroking the nose of Il Porcellino for good luck in the Piazza del Mercato Nuovo, the triumphal Arcone (“arch”) on the Piazza della Repubblica, the site of its original Roman Forum, and the statue of Cosmo I, Piazza della Signoria, erected in 1594.
Inside the Accademia Gallery which contains hundreds of paintings and sculptures besides the iconic, Statue of David. Proof of Vaccine cards and masks were required and attendance inside was reduced. We didn't have to wait long and again, it was nice not to have massive crowds.
That said, Sunday in the Plaza was another matter.
The next day we rented a car and drove to the tiny country of San Marino. There are no direct trains and the drive was about 3 hours, but it turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip.
To get to the top, we took the cable car (Funivia di San Marino) from Borgo Maggiore. We lucked out with a parking spot not too far from the cable car entrance, but parking could be problematic during busier seasons. A roundtrip ticket runs approximately $8 USD and the 5-minute ride to the top is almost worth the entire trip.
San Marino is one of the oldest and smallest countries in the world. It is situated on top of Mt. Titano with 360-degree spectacular views of the Adriatic and the surrounding countryside.
We spent a few hours walking between two of the three towers, having lunch and admiring the view. Learn more about The Republic of San Marino, here
Tip: Car Rental – October 2021. We rented our mid-size, 4 door, manual trans car from Sicily by Car at the Florence Airport (about a 15 min taxi ride from downtown). Cost for the day was $64.46 with basic liability and $11 for additional driver.
We used Florence as our base of operations and chose to take the high-speed train to visit destinations outside of Florence. Parking in Florence is notoriously difficult.
To reach Venice, we opted to take the 7:20 am train to arrive in Venice by 9:34 am. Unfortunately, a passenger vs train incident (their words) forced us to reroute and added an extra hour to our journey. We had scheduled a private, 4-hour tour of Venice through Walks with Locals ($75 pp) to begin at 10:30 am and we were only a few minutes late as our lovely guide, Romy, met us at the train station instead of our original meet point 20 minutes away. We experienced our first rain of the trip, but it was brief and when the sun came out it turned out to be a beautiful day.
Romy did an excellent job walking us through the narrow alleyways and across multiple bridges that make up the city. Venice is made up of over 100 small islands and there are no roads, only canals, including the Grand Canal that is seen so often in movies.
The Bridge of Sighs. I wanted to see this bridge after reading the book by Richard Russo of the same name. Legend says this was the last bridge that prisoners would see before they were destined for exile or prison and would sigh at their last view of beautiful Venice. It is also featured in the movie, A Little Romance. One of the characters tells of a tradition that if a couple kiss in a gondola beneath the Bridge of Sighs in Venice at sunset while the church bells toll, they will be in love forever.
A sampling of fresh fish and spices in the open-air market.
The Rialto Bridge, one of more than 300 bridges that connect the more than 120 small islands that make up the city of Venice. Some, as you can see are quite low.
After inquiring about Murano, famous for Murano Glass, Romy arranged on the spot for a boat to take us to the island of Murano which sits about 1 mile north of Venice. We were treated to a demonstration of glass blowing and a tour of their museum/glass store where intricate glass sculptures and chandeliers cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The time spent there was interesting but cost us an hour of our walking tour so not sure I’d recommend if on a shortened visit as we were.
High-speed boat ride to Murano Island, glass blowing demonstration and luxury, stained glass windows on the shop's private yacht for our return trip. (Clearly they hoped we'd spend more $$.)
No pictures were allowed inside the museum/store of glass items for sale. The three below are a very small sample of the incredible glass art for sale. Pictures from Muranoglass.com.
In the short time we had we saw: the Bell Tower, St. Mark’s Cathedral (outside), the Riva degli Schiavoni, Bridge of Sighs and the Doge’s Palace. A gondola ride was included which left us bemused, as it was only from one side of the Grand Canal to the other, about 2 minutes. We had to catch a 5:30 pm train but it left us wanting to return for a much longer stay.
Dome of Santa Maria della Salute, a portion of the Grand Canal, St. Mark's Basilica and St. Mark's square.
Scenes from our seven-hour stay in Venice. Narrow streets, the Doges Palace, Santi Apostoli Bell Tower and beautiful canals. For some interesting and surprising facts about Venice, go here.
Fun fact: As noted above, Venice has over 300 canals and waterways, but it only ranks 2nd in the world next to this American city; Pittsburgh!
The seaside towns of Cinque Terre were up for the next day’s excursion. A fair distance from Florence (about 3 hours), we had 3 choices: 1) drive, 2) take a tour via bus with 35+ likeminded visitors or, 3) take a private tour by train. The roads in Italy are very nice; the problem is always parking so #1 was out. Due to Covid and our dislike of large bus tours in general, we opted for #3, a privately guided tour of Cinque Terre by Walks With Locals. This guide (who will remain unnamed) was the first guide of our trip that we didn’t particularly care for, however he was very good at navigating the train schedules, which would have been difficult on our own. We left Florence at 7:15 am, changed trains in Pisa and arrived in La Spezia about 11:00 am, then connected to the smaller local train and our first stop, Riomaggiore. We made a brief stop for some bruschetta and a glass of wine, then walked up many flights of stairs in narrow alleyways to get the most beautiful views of the town below.
The five towns of Cinque Terre were once sleepy fishing villages and you can still feel that ambiance as you walk about the area. Known for fresh fish and wine, the early Romans were thought to be the first to produce wine in the region. A sweet wine, Sciacchetrà is found only in Cinque Terre.
We proceeded to the Cinque Terre Express which connects all five towns and runs about 4 times an hour each direction. Due to time, we only made brief stops in three of the towns: Manarola, Vernazza and Monterossa al Mare. It was another beautiful day and the views were stunning. As the towns are built into the hillside, uphill roads and steep stairs are the norm. There is a walkable, 7-mile trail that connects all five towns and weaves high along the coast through the vineyards but we were unable to take it due to time and also trail closures from a recent landslide.
The streets and views in Vernazza plus the harbor where we caught the ferry to Monterosso al Mar.
It's just a 15 minute ride from Vernazza to Monterosso al Mare on the Ferry, but a great way to see some of the towns of Cinque Terre from the water.
A popular tourist destination, Monterosso al Mare is the largest of the five Cinque Terre towns and the only one with beautiful beaches, coral reefs and crystal clear water. The hills are dotted with lemon trees. There's an overlook with a statue of Saint Francis of Assisi petting a dog which had a marvelous view.
We decided to leave a little earlier than scheduled so that we could stop and get off the train in Pisa. From the train, the Tower of Pisa, Baptistry and plaza are just a 5 minutes walk. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is one of those iconic landmarks that everyone knows about and it just didn’t seem like a visit to Italy would be complete without checking it out. We were so glad we did as it is much more spectacular in person! Little is ever mentioned about the huge Baptistry and cathedral right there on the plaza or the cute town of Pisa, the birthplace of Galileo. We could have spent a lot more time in this quaint city, but we had a train to catch to get back to Florence.
Known as the Camp dei Miracoli (the Square of Miracles), work began in 1064 with the Cathedral dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta. In 1162 the Baptistry was added, followed by the Bell Tower (the tower of Pisa) about 20 years later. You can climb to the top of the tower for approximately $20 US pp. While not a difficult climb, it is 252 steps and takes about 1/2 hour for striking view from the top. I found an excellent drone-filled video with some remarkable shots (and dramatic music!) here.
Statue near the birthplace of Galileo, quaint winding streets and one last shot of Pisa. We were often awestruck by the sheer size of the structures - something you can't feel without being there in person.
We were treated to this parting shot of the sunset over the Arno River on our way to the train station in Pisa.
For our final day in Florence, we found a pharmacy that gave Covid tests with results within the hour, gathered our luggage and returned to Rome by Express Train. That’s the short version as we only made the train with minutes to spare! We took the train directly to the Rome Airport and caught a cab to the small city of Fiumicino, where I'd booked a Comfort Inn for the night prior to our early morning flight. The Comfort Inn in Fiumicino was acceptable and just a short walk to an offshoot of the Tiber River and small harbor that was lined with small restaurants. A perfect end to an amazing trip.
I can take you there! Please email me with questions or for more information on travel to Italy!
Knockers! We should have taken more pictures of them!
Still or fizzy water, free for the taking!
Creative parking is a necessity!
Located in St. Peter's Square, in 2019 Pope Francis unveiled a monument dedicated to the world's migrants and refugees, titled, "Angels Unaware".
Random signage that was easy to read without knowing Italian!
The town of Carrara - where your marble comes from.
Gorgeous sunset from our apartment in Florence.
7/11 type store and gas stop off the highway that had the most amazing displays of candy bars.
Gelato - It's as good as everyone says it is.
Transportation differences between Venice and Rome!
Tip: Travel with fun friends!
On our waitress's arm in Rome: "Se Puoi Sognarlo Puci Farlo" If you can dream it, you can do it.
Home again and a reminder to book a new trip soon!
I can take you there! Please email me with questions or for more information on travel to Italy!