Posts Tagged Italy
On Sunday 2nd July we moved on from Verona to Milan. This was to be our base for our final five nights in Italy – our longest stay anywhere on this trip. There were a lot of things to do there, and we planned to visit two other cities on day trips.
Milan is a big city, and the places of interest to us were quite far apart, so we got used to making our way around by Metro. We had pre-booked two things. One was the opera! Unlike Verona, this was not the main reason for our visit. But La Scala is famous, and it seemed foolish to miss the opportunity of going while in Milan. This time we saw La Bohème, an opera neither of us knew, but after visiting Puccini’s birthplace in Lucca, it seemed appropriate. The staging was impressive, and the performance good – even if the story is not exactly joyful! We understood that the seats we’d booked were in the first circle, but it transpired that they were in the first balcony, above no less than four tiers of boxes. This meant that our view was far from ideal (Sandie had to lean forward in order to see even part of the stage) and it was very hot and stuffy up there.
The other thing we’d booked to see was Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper, on the wall of a Dominican refectory. You have to book a time slot months in advance, and you are allowed only 15 minutes in the room. Perhaps we are not great judges of art, because we were not terribly impressed by the painting. Just opposite the refectory (and the linked church) we saw the small vineyard that was given to Leonardo by the duke of Milan, and in the Science Museum we saw models of his many inventions.
Our tickets for the Last Supper (sounds like we were present there!) also entitled us to visit the Brera art gallery, where we saw many famous examples of medieval and Renaissance art.
We spent some hours at the cathedral, Europe’s largest Gothic church. This included a walk on the terraces – giving great views over the city – and a visit to the cathedral museum. We do not normally find museums terribly interesting, but this was fascinating, as it enabled us to see close up some of the carvings we could otherwise only glimpse from a distance.
We visited the Castello Sforzesco, and the park beyond. In the castle we saw the unfinished Pieta which Michelangelo worked on until six days before his death. One evening we went to the canal area of the city, where there were crowds of people and a great atmosphere. We enjoyed the eating, drinking and people watching!
Genoa is 93 miles from Milan, but we read that you can do it easily as a day trip. This is true, but it means taking a high-speed train which is more expensive that the regional trains we’d been using for the past three weeks. We’d booked our long trips on the Net in advance, and bought tickets for short journeys from station machines. But this was a return journey, and we wanted to enquire about money-saving options, so for the first time we joined the queue to buy tickets from a human being. We found her quite difficult to understand, but gathered that you can buy return tickets only if you know exactly which train you are getting in both directions. Worse, she announced that the train we’d intended to get was full, and the next available one was not until 11.10 – too late to make a day trip worthwhile.
We were debating whether we could reorganise our plans and go on a different day, when the ticket seller announced that she could sell us tickets for the 9.10 – the train that was full – but we would have to pay a supplement when on the train. So we did, although it made our day trip expensive. We gave up any claim to understanding how the Italian railway system works!
But it was a good and enjoyable day. Genoa is quite different from the other Italian cities on our itinerary. For a start, it’s on the sea: it rivals Marseilles as the biggest port on the Mediterranean. In Genoa we didn’t just see the sea, we took a boat ride across the harbour to Pegli and back. The town is very picturesque when seen from the water. We also strolled around the old town, admiring the cathedral, other churches and especially the beautiful palazzi on the Via Garibaldi.
Genoa was the birthplace of Christopher Columbus: we saw the church where he was baptised (though it was closed) and the park where his three ships are pictured in flowers. In recent years the old port has been transformed, and is now home to several tourist attractions. We went up in the Bigo, a kind of revolving drum that is suspended from a spider-like structure, and lifts you up for great views over the harbour and the city.
Our other day trip was to Bergamo – closer to Milan, a shorter (and much cheaper) train journey. The old town sits on top of a hill, about two miles from the railway station. We went there by bus and funicular, but chose to walk back and take photos on the way.
We enjoyed strolling around the narrow streets of the old town. We visited the cathedral, which was less attractive than the nearby church of Santa Maria Maggiore. That was much more elaborate, and the painting of the Great Flood (recently restored) was especially interesting. The adjoining Cappella Colleoni had an even more elaborate façade, but you were not allowed to take photos of the interior.
We went up the clock tower, and had great views over the town. We ended up at La Rocca (a fortress, now a museum). We didn’t go in, but there were great views from the gardens.
Perugia and Assisi were a lot further south than any of the other cities on our itinerary. So from Assisi it was a long train journey back north to Florence, a quick change, and then west to our next destination.
Back in 2005 we had a family holiday in Tuscany; we saw several interesting cities, but Lucca was too far from our villa. So it was on the itinerary for 2017! At first sight we were disappointed: parts of the city (especially around the station) were scruffy, and ‘pedestrianised’ in the old town apparently meant that there were lots of bikes, but not too many cars. Cloudy weather – quite a shock after ten days of unbroken hot sun! – did not add to the attractiveness of the city. But when the weather improved, and we got to know Lucca better, our opinion became much more positive.
We visited the cathedral, and particularly liked the modern stained glass. Other churches included San Giovanni e Santa Reparata where you can see the remains of five different layers – an older church built on top of a yet older church built on top of a Roman temple built on top of Roman houses (fragments of mosaics remain). The Piazza Anfiteatro is fascinating because houses and restaurants have been built into the old amphitheatre.
We climbed to the top of the Tower Giunigi – unusual because there are trees growing on the flat roof – and enjoyed amazing views over the city. We also walked right round the city walls, from which you can get views of both the city and the beautiful countryside. You can also see a number of weird sculptures on the bastions.
Lucca is the city where Puccini was born, and there is a concert in his honour every night in one of the churches. The one we went to included a selection of music from Mozart as well as Puccini. It seemed the right thing to do while in Lucca, and also seemed an appropriate prelude to the operas we will see over the next couple of weeks.
From Lucca to Mantua was a long and complex train journey, involving three changes. Two were very quick (we almost missed one connection because the train was running late) but at least we had time for coffee in Bologna (a luxury not usually available on Italian trains).
Unfortunately the weather deteriorated while we were in Mantua: we had cloudy grey skies and some really violent thunderstorms. But we managed to be inside during the worst, and it didn’t stop us from seeing the sights. We also had the opportunity of getting our washing done – a real bonus!
Mantua is not on the top tourist trail, but there are two main places really worth visiting. The Palazzo Ducale, right in the centre, is huge, and there is one room after another with frescoed walls and elaborate ceilings. The most famous room is the Camera degli Sposi; visitor numbers are restricted, you have to pre-book and you are allowed five minutes max – although we saw no signs of these rules being enforced. By this stage of our trip we had seen hundreds of frescoes, but those in the palace were different in that they depicted not religious themes, but life among the aristocracy.
The other palace is the Palazzo Te, a mile or two outside the town, and built as the summer retreat for the current duke and his mistress. Again, there were lots of highly decorated rooms, with mainly classical and sometimes erotic themes. The outstanding one was the Sala dei Giganti, illustrating the victory of Jupiter over the Titans. It is hard to describe the spectacular effect, but it really does create the illusion that the rocks are tumbling down around you.
In addition to the palaces, we visited the cathedral and other churches. We were particularly impressed by the Bibiena Theatre, used originally for science talks, now also for cultural performances – a real gem of a place.
We’ve wanted to visit Verona for years – since even before we created our bucket list! In particular we wanted to see an opera in the Arena – the third biggest amphitheatre in the world, and the best preserved. Inside the original building there is a huge stage, and seating for over 20,000. The opera productions are spectacular, and we booked months ago to see Aida. So here we were in Verona, feeling quite excited when the time finally came. Several times during the day we looked anxiously at the sky – there were clouds around, and a threat of thunderstorms in the evening. Fortunately they did not materialise. The evening was fine, if a little windy. The opera started at 9pm, and we left the Arena at 1am.
Did the performance live up to expectations? In many ways, yes – the setting, the scale, the atmosphere all made for a magical experience. We were however slightly disappointed with the production, which was modernistic, minimalist and monochrome. The cast of thousands (well, hundreds anyway) and some of the effects were indeed spectacular. But there were no real elephants in the parade scene, as in the past: instead, there were mechanical animals, the main characters were seated on forklift trucks, and other members of the cast were zooming around on what looked like jetskis. Two men were constructing a kind of tower, abseiling up and down – we had no idea why. We’ve decided that, as far as opera is concerned, we are traditionalists at heart.
At the end of Aida, the lovers die in a tomb – which links neatly with Verona’s other claim to fame, a story in which star-crossed lovers meet a similar fate. People come from all over the world to visit Juliet’s house, gaze at Juliet’s balcony, stand in Juliet’s courtyard and touch Juliet’s statue. Never mind the fact that the balcony was added to the house in 1935, that it is far too high to climb, and that Romeo and Juliet never existed anyway. (You can also visit Juliet’s tomb – nothing much to see, but surprisingly it’s a popular spot for weddings!) We went to a promenade performance of excerpts from the play which was quite entertaining. It was (mainly) in Italian, but we guessed correctly that this would not be a problem, as we are familiar with the plot!
We stayed three nights in Verona, but had plenty to occupy our time. In addition to the above, we visited the cathedral and three other big churches full of artwork; the old castle which is now a museum; the impressively decorated Scaligeri tombs; and some lively piazzas. We crossed to the other side of the river to visit a palazzo with gardens, and the remains of the Roman theatre (not to be confused with the amphitheatre). We had great views of the town from there, and from a tower in the centre. All in all, we had a great time in Verona, and are glad that we made it there at last, even if the opera was slightly disappointing.
On Sunday 17 June, we left Padua, and moved on to Bologna.
If Padua was better than we expected, Bologna was a bit disappointing. It may have been that our expectations were too high. It was a pleasant city, and we enjoyed our time there, but we would not rank it among the best cities in Europe, or even in Italy.
We did like the miles and miles of colonnaded streets, and the colourful buildings (red, pink, orange, yellow). But the sights… Our B&B was conveniently situated close to the Two Towers, one of which (by far the shorter of the two) is regarded as unsafe (not surprising if you’ve seen the angle it leans at). But you can climb about 500 steps in the taller tower, and enjoy wonderful views from the top. In theory, that is. We were about to go in when we saw a sign saying that the tower was closed for restoration, until July. So much for that!
One of the iconic sights of Bologna is the Neptune Fountain – but we could not see it. It was boxed in for restoration. Later than day, we had lunch in a pleasant park north of the town. There is a big (and doubtless impressive) fountain there, but it was shut down (guess why?) for restoration.
The places that we could visit were mainly churches. Several had impressive frescoes, but the one we liked best was the Basilico di San Stefano, a whole complex of churches and cloisters dating back to the 11th century, and built on the site of an even earlier church. We also visited the Palazzo d’Accursio, which includes a museum and an art gallery, and the Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio, the former home of Bologna University, where in the Teatro Anotomico dissections of dead bodies took place in the name of medical science.
Our guidebook suggested Ferrara as an easy day trip from Bologna, so we decided to take their advice. What we didn’t realise was that Ferrara was on the train line from Padua to Bologna, so it would have been even easier to stop there on the way. Not to worry – however much pre-travel research you do, there’s always more to learn when you are on the spot.
The main feature of Ferrara is its castle, right in the centre of the city, but not on the top of a hill, as castles usually are. It is one of the few European castles to be surrounded by a water-filled moat, but we did not find its appearance ‘dazzling’ (as per the guidebook): grim and foreboding would be more accurate, in our view. Still, there were lots of interesting things to see inside, including dungeons as well as ducal apartments.
There were several other places on our ‘ought to visit’ list for Ferrara, but some were closed. The cathedral was ‘in restauro’: we managed a brief look, but it was very dark and gloomy. The Palazzo Schifannoia had some interesting frescoes, but only two public rooms, so our visit did not last long. However, we enjoyed the rest of the day exploring back streets and walking along the city walls.
While Bologna was on our bucket list, Perugia was an add-on to our itinerary. But it was definitely our favourite Italian city so far. The capital of Umbria, situated on a hill-top, smaller and quieter than Bologna (main streets pedestrianised), and so picturesque! We very much enjoyed our time exploring the city. The narrow streets are a real maze, so it is easy to get lost. As there were relatively few sights recommended in the guidebooks, we did a fairly random walk, looking at churches and other places of interest we happened to pass. Because the town is on a hill, we did more climbing than we’d done since leaving Slovenia. But it was worth it – the views over the city and surrounding countryside were superb.
We saw the oldest church in the city, and the biggest church in Umbria. We saw an Etruscan arch, and an Etruscan well. We walked along an ancient aqueduct, and took escalators that led us down through old fortifications to a lower level of the city. One place we found particularly interesting was the tower of San Angelo. We climbed the stairs to get a great view – but on every level there was a display of musical instruments from different periods, linked in with photos of relevant drawings. And music playing. It was incredibly well done.
The weather was very hot, so we needed to spend a lot of time drinking (that’s our excuse). In Italian cities we’d noticed many people drinking a really lurid orange drink, and wondered what it was. In Perugia we asked a friendly waitress who explained that it was ‘Aperol spritz’, which we subsequently discovered is the most popular aperitif in Italy. We tried it and loved it, so now it’s one of our favourite drinks. Only problem is, when you order a drink here, you are given large quantities of nibblies with it (crisps, nuts, cheese biscuits, chunks of pizza etc etc). We don’t look forward to weighing ourselves when we get back home! And Ian will need to visit the dentist – his bridge tooth has come out again!
Assisi is not far from Perugia, and in some respects it is similar – another picturesque Umbrian hill town. But it is dominated by the story of St Francis, and the many pilgrims who come there. On our arrival (Friday afternoon) we walked up to the castle which overlooks the town. This meant that the next day we could focus on churches (and dress appropriately, although the code did not seem to be as strictly enforced as the guidebooks suggested).
The Basilica of St Francis is obviously the main focus of the town. It is huge, with essentially two churches, one on top of the other, quite different styles but both decorated with frescoes. What seemed strange to us was that the piazzas outside the basilica were quite empty – no bars and cafés, as we expected, but barriers forcing you through a narrow entrance way where armed guards were on duty (though they did not inspect you or your bags).
It was the same story at Santa Maria degli Angeli, a basilica a couple of miles outside Assisi, which we reached via a pleasant walkway, passing by fields of sunflowers and with views back to the town. In this basilica there is a chapel which was the nucleus of the first Franciscan monastery – a kind of church within a church.
In the town of Assisi itself we visited the Basilica di Santa Chiara (founder of the Poor Clares) and the Abbazia di San Pietro (plain, but with some interesting modern artwork). In the cathedral di S. Rufino, we went down into the crypt and saw some atmospheric vaulted archways and Ionic columns, as well as more religious paintings. (We also visited the Foro Romano, and saw more evidence of ancient Assisi.)
Note that several churches in Assisi ban photos, so we are limited in what we can show you.
On Wednesday 14 June we woke to grey skies. We couldn’t complain, as we’d had glorious sunshine for all six of our full walking days. But now it was time to move on. We took a taxi to the nearest railway station, and a train to Nova Gorica, on the Italian border. Then it was farewell to Slovenia!
We’ve been lucky enough to visit Italy, several times, but we certainly haven’t seen all of it. We’ve long wanted to see the opera in the great amphitheatre at Verona; Bologna was also on our bucket list. Needless to say, while planning and researching this trip we thought of several other places: ‘While we’re there, we might as well…’. We ended up with no fewer than 13 cities to fit in!
Until about a year ago, we’d never heard of Udine. Then Sandie read a Guardian travel article about Friuli, a region of Italy largely undiscovered by tourists. It included a photo of a beautiful square in Udine; we learned that Friuli is in the north-east corner of Italy, making Udine an ideal first stop for people coming from Slovenia.
We were at first rather disappointed with Udine. The castle has an art gallery, but the building itself is unexciting; ditto the cathedral. The Piazza della Libertad has buildings and statues modelled closely on those in St Mark’s Square, Venice, but the piazza is not really a square, more of a thoroughfare, and it is not surrounded by cafés, as we imagined. Part of the problem, however, is that the weather was bad (grey and wet) when we arrived. The next day was fine, the sun was shining, and the city looked much more attractive.
The Piazza della Libertad looked more beautiful, but was still spoilt by the scaffolding and netting put up to cover fountains and statues which were being restored. We actually preferred the Piazza San Giacomo, which has (in our view) a greater claim to be called the main square of the city: a big square with one fountain, and no statues, but surrounded by cafés and buildings in a variety of colours.
The guidebooks refer to Treviso as the ‘little Venice’ – it’s not far away, and has canals! It really cannot compare, but it is interesting in its own right. There are of course a number of churches. Sandie was politely asked to leave the cathedral, as she was wearing a sleeveless top! But after she’d changed, we went back and were able to see the famous painting of the Annunciation, by Titian. Other churches had walls covered with frescoes – there’s no point in our trying to list them all, even if we could remember which work by which artist was in which church.
The centre of the town is picturesque, with narrow medieval streets, and canals with willow trees and water wheels. We walked round a section of the city walls, and returned there in the evening as it was the location of the ‘Elvis Days’ festival, which we thought might be worth a look. Bizarrely, it reminded us of the Italian festival in Venice (Florida) back in February. There were crowds of people, stalls selling all kinds of food, drink and other goods, bands playing and people dancing. The only additional thing here was a contest for Elvis impersonators – we saw three, and were amused rather than impressed.
Prosecco is a popular drink in Treviso, and we enjoyed a number of glasses while there. There is a restaurant which claims to be where tiramisu (Ian’s favourite dessert) was invented, so he had to sample that. We had a very nice apartment for our two-night stay; as it was now 11 days since we had left home the washing machine proved very useful!
Our visit to Padua did not start well. It is no great distance from Treviso, and we caught an early train, so we arrived at 9.15. We’d booked a hotel near the station, so the plan was to dump our luggage there and be free to explore. However… we found the road easily enough, but could see no sign of the hotel. We tried a different road where it appeared to be signed, but no luck. Sandie asked a man who did not know, but used his phone to get precise walking directions to the hotel, which it said was just four minutes away.
Unfortunately, the directions were completely wrong, and we ended up back at the station! What made it worse was that a wheel had come off our big case, and Ian was struggling to carry it. He found a visitor information office on the station, but the woman there had not heard of our hotel either. Eventually we tracked it down – it was further along the road we’d walked in the first place. Not far at all, but we had to use a taxi, because the case was so heavy.
Luckily for us, the hotel receptionist was very kind, and spoke excellent English. She managed to find a room we could check into immediately, and suggested places where we could buy a new suitcase. The nearest was a ‘Chinese shop’, which had a large selection, all very cheap. Ian took our new case back to the hotel, while Sandie went on to the Scrovegni Chapel, to collect the tickets we’d pre-booked for 4pm that afternoon.
The Capella Scrovegni is famous because of the brilliantly coloured frescoes by Giotto which cover the walls. Yet more frescoes … but these really are something special. They are carefully preserved by keeping the chapel climate-controlled and restricting the number of visitors. It is necessary to book in advance for a specific time. On the side of the chapel there is a waiting room – a kind of airlock which seats 25 people. Every 15 minutes, the doors open just long enough for one group to enter, another group to move through to the chapel itself, and a third group to leave the building. It is very highly organised (and if you miss your slot, you’ve had it!) but it works and it was well worth the wait.
The other main attraction in Padua is the Basilica di Sant’Antonio – not really to our taste, but impressive for two reasons. First, the interior decoration is incredibly ornate – as Ian remarked, it’s over the top and down the other side. Second, we were amazed by the crowds of people there: we had not realised that it’s still a major pilgrimage destination. But photography was forbidden, so we cannot show you what it is like.
We also visited the Palazzo de Ragione, a vast hall covered in (guess what?) frescoes!