October 27, 2013

L’Italia

Italy was the last country of our three-week long trip, and honestly, the bit that I was most excited about! 

Driving through the Brenner Pass, a mountain pass along the border between Italy and Austria we crossed numerous apple orchards and vineyards and began to spot the Italian part of the Alps in a Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara sort of frame, where an endless stretch of road continued with grapes growing on either side of the road and the towering ice tipped mountains looked down on them.
Buongiorno
We were headed towards Italy’s northern-most major city of Venice! It is one of those places you have seen just too many times in movies and have always wanted to see for yourself whether it could be real, or a huge green screen. The interconnected network of canals with green water, the many bridges decorated with flower pots and intricate designs, the narrow alleyways, the breathtaking openness of Piazza San Marco – and of course experiencing the city from beyond the arched prow of a gondola while gently being rowed by a senor in the typical striped shirt and a red scarf around their necks.
We drove over Mussolini’s famous Bridge of Liberty, and took a ferry from Tronchetto over the Guidecca canal to St. Mark’s Square. Very soon, the tarmac roads vanished from sight and an array of beige coloured buildings with red brick roofs came into view. Welcome to Venetia!
Queen of the Adriatic

Reminded me of Satyajit Ray

More beige, browns and brick.

From the prow

Basking like a Bellissima 😛

The Grand Canal

The real stuff. Not the Vegas version 😀

Not called the City of Canals, for no reason

Common sights

The Bridge of Sighs

🙂
The majestic Basilica di San Marco and its grand Campanile bell tower (which are both currently under renovation) that rises above Piazza San Marco, call to mind the golden age of the Republic of Venice, are the first things you will notice. The square was bursting with tourists and vendors of straw hats and water – the heat was absolutely unbearable, which is probably I enjoyed Venice a little lesser than I had anticipated.
There was time to explore, get an original gelato (tiramisu flavour!) and listen to the café orchestras while trying to avoid sitting on the yellow chairs (you pay if you sit!).
We were taken to the Murano glass factory, which is a little outlet in one of the many twisty lanes of the water city. Here it was miraculous to see the wonders that were created with glass – as one of the chief glass artisan made a perfect model of the Ferrari horse from just a blob of glass and some tongs. (Read: Mind blown away). Followed afterwards by the essential Gondola ride (there are really long lines and our Tour Manager had booked in advance, so we got in nice and easy), we settled in a gondola – ready to experience the city from the water. Being rowed from in front of the Bridge of Sighs, the gondolier told us much about the history of this enchanting city and the fact that it is sinking, year on year.
Tan and straw!

At St. Mark’s Square

Perfetto!

The winged lion 

Beat the heat!

Tourists galore!

 We got a couple of souvenirs and I was the proud owner of an all new tan bag (It was calling out to me!) when the Sun was almost setting, and we took our ferry back to the bus and onward to the city of Padova, in the northern Italy.

The next day we checked out of our really fancy hotel B4 and proceeded to Maranello to visit the Ferrari Museum – which I must say I thought was a rather rubbish idea for me, because of my limited knowledge of automobiles. I wish we could have skipped this and spent more time in Florence, where was the ultimate destination.  The museum was great, and I know a couple of people who would have drooled over Enzo Ferrari’s legacy and I’ll just let it stay at that.
The twisty hotel

The prancing horse. Or not. 

Imagine revving engines in the background

Michael, the legend. So lucky to have met him!

Tiramisu! *Droool*

The Autostrada

We drove to Pisa next, with the Arno River showing itself in glimpses and then hiding behind the landscape, only stopping at the Autostrada Ristorante for lunch – pasta in pesto and tiramisu! There were more trees, little homes in the midst of expansive vineyards with the occasional sunflower fields (Unfortunately we were on the expressway and couldn’t stop – but what a sight those sheets of yellow pastures were). Soon we were at one of the most remarkable architectural spots from medieval Europe. The Tower of Pisa is more accurately referred to simply as the bell tower, which was a popular architectural element in those times and at 60 metres, leans quite impressively. It is one of the four buildings that make up the cathedral complex in Pisa known as the Piazza dei Miracoli, which means Field of Miracles.


Piazza dei Miracoli
The Cathedral Complex

Always someone pushing or holding up the tower, photo-bombing.

Sans lean.

The construction of the tower began in August 1173 and continued for about 200 years due to the onset of a series of wars. It began to lean during construction, and obviously the name of the architect is a mystery J

But it is a fantastic site to be a part of, sit on the green grass and admire how this miracle has managed to stay this way for so many years.  The complex is lined with Bangladeshi shop owners who are selling fridge magnets, t-shirts and apparently original Italian leather handbags at 25 Euros. One has to take a public bus which runs four times an hour costs 2 € per person which gets you to Piazza dei Milacoli, so best be early or be squashed!
After lunch, we wrapped up and travelled towards Florence where we visited Piazalle Michelangelo – a famous square with a magnificent panoramic view of the Florentine skyline and a copy of Michelangelo’s famed sculpture – David. It is a truly fantastic spot, giving a complete view of Florence’s best known structures – the Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo and the Palazzo Vecchio among many others.
David. Against the sunset.

The spellbinding Florence skyline

River Arno
It is said that all roads lead to Rome. And that’s where we were headed too.
I could hardly contain my excitement. After having read innumerable publications about the ancient and developed society that Rome was, watching documentaries about the legacy of the Emperors – the bloody battles and the amount of art that was created in the period, it gave me goose-flesh as the coach drew close to the Aurelian wall that borders the city.
Rome is like a city that has been created around buildings and ruins of its predecessors’ glory. And every inch is history. Although a lot of it feels like any Indian metropolitan city – rushing traffic with impatient drivers, roads that have potholes and mouldy metro stations.
Our first day in the capital city we visited the Vatican City to see the world’s largest cathedral – an epitome of the Christian faith, and to onlookers, simply an imposing structure that defines that face of the skyline -St. Peter’s Basilica. Basilica di San Pietro is it is commonly known in Italian, was built over a span of more than one hundred years by the greatest Italian architects of the era on hill, across the Tiber river from the historic centre of Rome. It is supposed to be the site when the chief apostle, St. Peter was crucified inverted and is buried. I would highly recommend BBC’s documentary on the Vatican for more details about St. Peter’s bones which still lie deep under the many crypts that the Basilica protects – intriguing beyond measure.
Right in front of the church lies St. Peter’s Square, a grandiose elliptical esplanade created in the mid seventeenth century by Gian Lorenzo Bernini – the mastermind architect who is credited with designing the twenty-six metre high bronze baldachin over the papal altar.
Once you enter the Basilica, to your right will be the over 500 year old ‘Pietà’ – a marble sculpture of a young looking Mary holding the dead body of her son created by Michelangelo at the early age of twenty-five. It is without debate the most famous monument in the structure which is a guardian of many treasures. Standing before the effigy, you can only feel awe at magic in the hands of the man who created the delicate folds in Mary’s robe and the serene expression that she bears.
There was so much to see and absorb inside the cathedral that we didn’t realise when over three hours had passed and our guide had heralded us to the Sistine Chapel, to see Michelangelo’s genius fresco and almost everyone there spent minutes simply staring in silence at the ceiling when the ushers had to ask some Chinese tourist to not click photographs and the spell was broken. How a man can create such work of art at a height of 40 metres, with such limited means and the pressure of completion from a Pope.
Even with my limited understanding of art, I could go on about the beauty of those paintings, the sculptures and tapestries that a part of the Vatican Museum – but after three quarters of a day (which is by no means enough) with tired feed and overwhelmed hearts we marched to the Trevi Fountain which is the top tourist destination in Roma. At the last destination of the organised tour, I heaved a happy sigh and tossed coins over my shoulder into the ornate fountain – I am most certainly going to be back!

Stone-paved

The umbrella pines

First look.

Marble magnificience

😀

St. Peter’s Square. Bernini, not Michelangelo.

Stare away.

Pieta. 

Elliptical saints. Thank you, Robert Langdon.

Inside St. Peter’s

Papal balcony

The Vatican Obelisk

Bernini’s canopy of bronze – the Baldachin.

The altar.

Swiss guard.

Welcome to St. Peter’s

The first apostle.

Baba says ‘Wav’!

The Trevi

Lending some change..

The next morning, we took a cab to the Piazza Navona, a square that displays the intellect of Bernini and is one of the finest baroque masterpieces in papal Rome. You might recognise it from Dan Brown’s ‘Angels and Demons’ novel and movie – as the location where the last of the Preferiti was dumped – that would be the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi or the Fountain of the Four Rivers which is in itself a pristine work of art.
We then walked to the Pantheon, and after exploring it a bit, went to visit the Colosseum and the Roman Forums (Metro stop: Colosseo, line B). I had planned to just walk around the place, but we happened to find a tour group that was departing in five minutes and we joined in! Both ladies – our guides were extremely knowledgeable and witty – what more do you need to make history fun. I’m going to skip the history on these two places – they’re all very easily available online and there is absolutely nothing I could add to those. I would just say that you cannot go to Rome and not walk through these structures – they might appear to be in ruins, but it is almost like the stones could speak – and this is one story you should not miss.
We were surprised and drenched by a flash rain that I enjoyed thoroughly, others not so much – and people slipped and tumbled on the smooth rocky road as we gaped at the huge structures where the erstwhile Roman parliament stood. Walking the road that Caesar once did, how can you not feel exhilarated?
Next stop were the Spanish Steps (Metro stop: Spagna, line A) where we had some Ravioli, Carbonara with some rose shaped panna cotta at Mignanelli, posed at the Steps, I slipped down the stairs and injured my already weak ankle and we decided it was quite enough for one day. Ideally, I would have preferred to spend at least another day and visit the Castel Sant’angelo and Piazza del Popolo, but we simply didn’t want to squeeze any more into the time we had.
Piazza Navona!

The Pantheon

And an accordion player, in the plaza

The Oculus

Friends, Romans, Countrymen.

But Ma loves London.

The interior. There used to be a wooden platform filled with sand above the ruins you can see in the centre.

A preserved section of the original marble seats.

Ruins of the Roman Forum

Ma still loves London 😛

Beautiful, even in ruins

Rains!
Spanish Steps

Lunch, anyone?

Heaven!
The final day of the tour was here and we had a lot of travelling to do – since we were taking the train from Rome Central Station to Milan – the city of all things fabulous! I have to stop for a moment and praise the transport system throughout Europe and even in Italy. We stepped out of our train (which of course had free WiFi and large luggage stowing sections), walked straight to the ‘Left Luggage’ area – deposited our bags there and took the underground straight to the Duomo!
Since we had around six hours in Milan, the plan was to visit the Last Supper – the original one which rests in the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie. But that couldn’t happen because we were there on a Monday – the only day that the church is closed. I had researched it before, so the disappointment was not last moment, but there was no other way we could plan the trip hence I just had to deal with it. Instead, we visited the magnificent Milan Cathedral, known as the Duomo, the golden Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and general meanderings around the Piazza.
We had a leisurely lunch at one of the restaurants in the Gallery, which will seem at first at something of a dream, or a set – glimmering golden in the Sun. In the distance a woman with a rope and a large container of soapy water was making huge bubbles – I couldn’t help myself from going over and asking her how it was done! 
Enroute Milan

This is a rail station, yes.

Duomo!

Bubbles in sunshine 🙂

I’d like that as a day job.

Almost exhausted explorers

Leonardo in the distance

Truly golden. 

Pizza, the Italian way.

Leo.

Scala Opera

Oman patriots! 😀

Those details!
Italy, oh, Italy.

You captured my heart and invigorated my soul. As I was boarding the Oman Air flight from Malpensa, I promised myself that I simply had to come back. Grazie and much love!

Arrivederci 
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