As we flew across Italy, from my aircraft window the tranquility of the sea was punctuated by the streaks of white wake from hundreds of boats on the water.
It is along the waters which cover the inside of this knee length shoe of a country that lays the soul of Italy. The Mediterranean Sea is the gateway to Rome, Florence, all of Tuscany, Sicily, Naples and the Amalfi Coast.
From this shoreline you can capture the culture of a nation, relive the history of a people, and photograph memories of spectacular vistas which will impress even the most traveled cynics.
While most visitors to Rome will take in the most publicized attractions like the Vatican, the Coliseum, Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, the city itself is a constant ever-changing museum. There are few turns where you don’t come across ancient Roman ruins of the city that held a population of over a million at the peak of its empire.
Along the Appian Way a visit to the Catacombs, where hundreds of thousands of Christians were buried during this era, brings home a sober realization of how difficult life and death was for those who chose to follow the new faith.
Rome is a fascinating city but to stay in Rome and say you saw Italy is akin to visitors going to Toronto and suggesting they experienced Canada.
Finding unique places to visit with exceptional photo opportunities in Italy is exceptionally easy. So one wonders why nearly everyone who visits the Leaning Tower of Pisa insists on having a picture taken of them in such a way as to suggest they are holding up the famous structure with their bare hands. It has become the ultimate cliché photo opportunity in capturing one of the world’s greatest architectural failures. And yes we did that as well.
As the soft earth beneath the base of the tower caved in over the centuries, the lean of the tower became noticeable. And the more noticeable it became the greater the millions of annual tourist dollars became, until 1990 following modern engineer reports, 30 million dollars was spent to ensure this cash cow of a building would not actually collapse. The investment returns the slant to what it was approximately 200 years ago so tourists could continue to appreciate what engineers and architects would be fired and sued for if they repeated such a colossal error today.
While the tower itself may not be worthy of architectural praise, the cathedral or Duomo that stands in the Field of Miracles in front of the tower is one of the best examples of Pisan Romanesque architecture anywhere.
This style of cathedral design can be found in other places but especially in the nearby walled city of Lucca, where it seems there is a church on every corner. The best known of these is the San Martino Cathedral, which serves as a focal point near the centre of an exceptional shopping and restaurant square in Lucca. Upon first glance one could conclude it is an identical copy of the one in Pisa.
Considerably fewer tourists travel the extra few miles to get to Lucca, but with no cars allowed inside the walls of this fortress city, it is a side trip definitely worth taking.
Bicycles and pedestrians share the narrow streets which all seem to lead to unique shops and Gelato bars, where locals brag that you can find the best Italian version of this ice cream style treat than anywhere in the country.
Only a few miles inland the topography shifts dramatically as the hills turn steeper and the rows of grape vines and olive trees begin to control the landscape. Castles and cathedrals from the past have been turned into today’s hotels and wine producing headquarters where tours with purchases of the most exquisite wines are readily available. While this may sound fairly commercial, the personality of Tuscany is in fact the opposite.
Even with all the movies produced featuring the Tuscan region in its cinematic glory; I never really appreciated what was the attraction. But as we were driving through the narrow street in Petroio with but a few inches on either side of the vehicle climbing to overcome the steepness of the hillside, I knew we were about to experience something different from anything in the past.
As we arrived at the Palazzo Brandano, which we picked because of the reviews we had read on Trip Advisor, we were met by the owners as though waiting especially for us. This small 11 room hotel converted from an old mansion is fairly typical of the lodgings you can find in the Tuscany region.
Overlooking vineyards you can choose to relax or spend your days travelling to the larger nearby tourist cities like Siena.
Siena is a city that comes to you right out of the middle ages. It’s famous cathedral was built in the 12th century and twice a year in its central plaza called the Piazza del Compo, perhaps the most dangerous horse race in the world takes place as riders from 10 adjoining neighborhoods race for pride and preservation of history two times around this relatively small circle, as thousands cheer from the inside and outside of the makeshift track.
As scenic as Tuscany and nearby Umbria are, perhaps nothing can compare with the dramatic vistas offered by travelling south of Rome along the Amalfi Coast.
This is a drive not suited to everyone. Hairpin turns and vertical drops that end at the sea hundreds of metres below are the norm. Large buses frequently cannot pass by each other, so traffic is controlled in various parts of the highway to allow for the interchange.
For those who can get past the vertigo, the reward is almost beyond imagination. Towns and villages, and even cities perched on mountainsides appear like they could themselves tip and fall on to the beaches and rocks below at any second.
The colours of the ocean with its dancing reflections are hypnotic. And when you later arrive on that beach yourself you discover the most unique places to wander. Capri, Sorrento, and Amalfi have now become playgrounds of the rich and famous. There is still reasonably priced accommodation to be had, but it is becoming scarcer. Yet surprisingly, dining in Amalfi itself was not only affordable, but nowhere in Italy would we find better pizzas and pasta. The locals say it is because they produce the best olive oil in the world, and after a few meals we are not about to argue with them.
North, south, east or west, travel through Italy is always an enjoyable experience, and one everyone should put on their bucket list sooner rather than later.
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