I remember gazing out the window as our British Airways flight enters Italian airspace flying at 10,500 metres, steep and rugged tree-covered hillsides give way to unending stretches of sandy beaches, which gracefully share their beauty with the blue-green waters that wash on them all along the coastline.
Islands of different shapes and sizes dot the horizon.
The tranquility of the sea is 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 travelled 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 one 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, is easy in Italy. 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. 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, its lean became noticeable. And the more noticeable it became, the greater the millions of annual tourist dollars became, until 1990 — following modern engineering reports — $30 million was spent to ensure this cash cow of a building would not collapse. The investment returned 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 the attraction was.
Overlooking vineyards, you can choose to relax or spend your days travelling to the larger nearby tourist cities like Siena. Siena 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 neighbourhoods 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.
This is just one part of Italy that is so great to visit. In my next post I will convey some of the sites that will overwhelm your senses when you go the other way from Rome towards and in the Amalfi Coast.
Travel Tip: In the major cities of the world, and in Rome for certain pickpockets are a scourge. Protect your self by carrying a security wallet.