Best of Florence

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A love letter to Tuscany

Sunny fields in Tuscany, Italy
Sunny fields in Tuscany, Italy

My dearest Tuscany

What a kind welcome I received upon entering your lands! The weather felt like an embrace full of warmth and affection. A wonderful way to greet I must say. Summer really suits you well. I couldn’t help but blush a little now and then as the sun left faint kisses on my cheeks.

You gave me everything I had ever hoped for in a vacation. A relaxed vibe, laid-back culture and my favorite cuisine in abundance. Endless varieties of delicious wines, bounties of freshest and the best tasting fruits, and a dizzying amount of art collection. I stumbled upon art when I least expected it. Thank you for giving me the best surprises at every turn.

My heart skipped quite a few beats when I caught the first few glimpses of your countryside through a train window. But when I laid my eyes on the full blown versions of the living landscapes, I stopped breathing altogether. The sight of your rolling hills covered in endless carpets of untamed and vibrant green pastures left me speechless. Brightly hued wildflowers looked like scattered studs after being showered in the morning mist, while the little droplets lay nestled in their petals glistened under the Tuscan sun. Perched atop one of the hills, was a stonewalled house, lonely yet cheerful. The view knocked me out of breath.

I dropped to the ground, laid my head in your lap, closed my eyes shut, took a deep breath and felt a tide of tranquility wash over me. I was home. If I could choose a place to rest my soul in peace, it would be right here, in your evergreen womb.

Oh Tuscany, you really did spoil me for choices. Within your boundaries, I feasted on some of the finest Italian delicacies ever. I devoured some of the sweetest peaches ever known to mankind. I would dare to go as far to call them borderline orgasmic. The Tuscan staple bread, soup and pastas satisfied my ever hungry belly. Thank you for nourishing my soul as well as my body with pleasurable experiences that revived, and somehow heightened, all of my senses. You are truly well endowed with nature’s bounty.

Every morning you woke me up to an irresistible aroma of rich, dark coffee bubbling away in a moka maker. Every evening you treated me to copious doses of Chianti and Brunello paired with just the right cheese, olives and cold-cuts. I appreciate every little thing you offered me. Even the opportunity to take languorous walks amid olive groves and unbound vineyards. And no less the opportunity to witness some of the oldest and best museums in the western world. You are blessed with some impressive architecture, exquisite sculptures and magnificent paintings.
The culture, traditions and heritage you behold is what makes you great. You nurtured these things, fortified some and cultivated many more. Where do you find the strength to give that much, to love that much?

You never let me down. Never once did I feel disappointed in you. And for that, I want to express my gratitude and love for you, Tuscany. There’s no question about forgetting you because that’s a lost cause. I don’t think anything can diminish the emotions you evoked in me. You have ignited an unfading passion in me.
For that and everything else, Thank you!

Yours lovingly,
S

Even before visiting Italy, I revealed to anyone who’d hear me, that I secretly dreamt about living in the Italian countryside some day. Why you ask? I was utterly enchanted by all that I had read and watched about Italy. I invited some baffled looks on that but I understood the reason behind it. People naturally concluded I was insane to think about living in a foreign country when I hadn’t even stepped out of my hometown ever. I had no travel experience whatsoever. Nevertheless, I was determined to take that leap sooner than later. When the opportunity came, I grabbed it with both hands. And I’m glad I made the most of it.
I found it difficult to pen down my feelings about all that I experienced in Italy, particularly Tuscany. It didn’t feel right to call it a memoir. Because all I want is to express my love and gratitude to this dream land. A love letter felt more appropriate to do that.
A love letter to Tuscany.

Day trip to Pisa

One to two days is a good enough time to spend in Pisa. Generally, people make it a day trip from Florence because it’s convenient and all everybody wants to see is the Leaning Tower of Pisa. If that’s what you’re planning to do as well, you’ll find this itinerary very useful. Read ahead.

Before trip

Everything you must know BEFORE visiting The Leaning Tower of Pisa can be found on the official website here. Check the timings, available slots and ticket prices.
Buy your tickets from the website, print them and carry a photo ID along. Stuff your daypack with water bottles, snacks, hats, sunglasses and sunblock, especially if you’re visiting during summer. Tuscan summers can get pretty hot. Wear comfy sneakers because the complex is huge and there’s a lot of walking to be done.
Best to carry purses/bags that will stay put on your chest instead of your back. Lots of thieves on the prowl at every tourist attraction.
Pisa is best reached by train from Florence or Livorno. For Eurail pass holders, regional trains are included in the pass. However, some trains have mandatory reservations, so check before you book. We traveled by the Trenitalia train ‘Livorno Centrale’ from Firenze SMN that stops at Stazione Pisa Centrale.

Campo Santo
Campo Santo

Itinerary

  • Board the 7AM train to Pisa from Florence SMN. It’s a 50 mins journey through rural Tuscany with beautiful glimpses of endless vineyards and olive groves.
  • Board a bus from Stazione Pisa Centrale to Piazza Dei Miracoli or Square of Miracles. that’s where the Leaning Tower and rest of the monuments are located. It’s at a 3km distance from the station. Get down at Via Bonanno 113 right across from the complex entrance.
  • Grab a coffee and pastry for breakfast from a nearby cafe and head to the complex entrance. It opens at 9am but it get’s pretty crowded. Avoid buying any souvenirs from the vendors outside the complex, they’ll get overcharge you.
    If you want a free pass to the cathedral, make sure you pick that up at the ticket office on site.
Leaning Tower of Pisa
Leaning Tower of Pisa
  • Enter the complex at 9 am and the first thing you should do, if you absolutely want to, join the rest of the crowd in taking a picture with the Leaning Tower in whatever pose you wish to – hugging the tower, pushing the tower, holding the tower. It’s going to look funny but you won’t be the only one doing that. Hundreds of people take pictures in same poses all around you but if you make it early, you’ll at least get a decent picture sans the crowd. People queue up for spots to take pictures in.
  • Go straight to the tower and head up to the top. It takes about 30 minutes to see the tower. Appreciate the fact that you’re standing inside what was one of the wonders of the world.
  • Now you have the day free to visit rest of the monuments int he complex. Head to the cathedral and see it from inside. The interiors of the cathedral left me speechless and awestruck. Every single cathedral across Italy is gorgeous. See it for yourself.
  • There are public restrooms next to Campo Santo. Find shade and take a break from the scorching sun. You’ll find people sitting on the lawn behind the cathedral and having picnic of sorts. Break into your stash of snacks and drinks. Replenish those energy levels.
Incredible ceiling art in the Cathedral
Incredible ceiling art in the Cathedral
  • If you have purchased tickets to the other monuments, make your way to Campo Santo, cemetery. There’s an exhibit of ancient sculptures, tapestries, scriptures and other artifacts, in the halls around the cemetery. The way every little thing has been preserved for ages, is noteworthy.
  • During my visit, the Opera del Duomo Museum was closed for renovation so I didn’t get a chance to see it.
  • The Baptistry is the monument at the very beginning of the complex. What I loved the most about it is it’s unique structure. How beautiful are those intricate carvings on the dome!
  • Take one last look at the complex and make your way out. If you wish to stay until evening, catch a bus to Pisa downtown by Arno river. Wander around Ponte di Mezzo bridge and soak in the Tuscan culture.
  • If you wish to return to Florence directly from Square of Miracles, walk to Torre 1 Bus stop on Via Giovanni Battista Niccolini to board a bus back to Stazione Pisa Centrale. Embark upon your return train journey.

Tick off the ‘Leaning Tower of Pisa’ from your bucketlist.

Rome: A Walk through history

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but certainly can be explored in a few. I would call it “a deep dive into history” or even “an episode of time travel”. Rome has truly withstood the test of time and leaving behind proof of all that endurance. Honestly, I remember being completely overwhelmed by a list of too many things to do, too many places to see because there really is a lot to Rome. Now that I’ve seen it all, I can safely recommend you some of my favorites. It would take all your life to see everything Rome has to offer. But I know you don’t spend all of it in one city. Don’t go chasing every fontana, every piazza and every Basilica out there. Take my advice and see the best stuff.

Go with “history” in your mind and your comfiest sneakers on your feet. You have a long walk ahead. Read through a little bit about Roman empires to truly appreciate the grandeur of Rome and why they say it wasn’t built it a day. Take audio guides wherever available because you can’t just guess the importance of the artifacts on display.

I recommend buying at least a public transportation pass if not any other because Rome is a huge city that has a lot of cobbled streets. Some places are on hilltop, others go round and round. No blaming me for sore achy feet later.

Colosseum

Colosseum from inside
Colosseum

Quite rightly a man-made wonder of the world, the Colosseum is a landmark, not just in Rome, but also in world history. The gigantic ampitheatre was built for deadly gladiator games back in Roman era. Palatine hill is an archaeological site, an open museum, in the backyard of Colosseum, full of ruins from different civilizations and empires from Roman history.
The best time to see the Colosseum is early morning. The night before, check bus/metro timing for ‘Colosseo’ line. Keep at least 4-5 hours to see the Colosseum and Palatine hill, carrying along some snacks, water bottles, hats, sunglasses and sunblock in your day pack. Get there as early as 7:30am and you’ll be the first few in queue. If you have a Roma pass or online ticket, you won’t have to wait in ticket queue. I bought a 48-hours Roma pass for €28 from Roma Termini Visitor Information center, which is a legitimate and official place to buy the pass. I won’t recommend buying elsewhere. Get an audio guide or you’ll be staring at rocks the whole time without a clue of it’s significance. Read a little about Roman history or watch Gladiator movies to really get the full effect of the monument.

Palatine Hill Ruins
Palatine Hill Ruins

FONTANA DI TREVI

Fontana di Trevi
Fontana Di Trevi

A majestic fountain, the Trevi! Definitely a must see, but how? Have you seen those viral pictures that show a ridiculous number of people flocked around the fountain resulting in a stampede? If that doesn’t sound like something you would enjoy, then your only option is to wake up super early, leave the kids in bed under supervision and head out to see the fountain in all it’s glory, no later than 6 AM. That’s right! Even at 6 AM, you’ll find people taking pictures, changing costumes, setting tripods but that’s bearable. This way you’ll be able to really appreciate the art, sculptures and history behind the fountain.

VATICAN CITY

St Peter's Basilica, Vatican City
St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City

The world’s largest Christian Basilica – Basilica di San Pietro or St Peter’s Basilica is located in Vatican City. The main structure is flanked by courtyards and a single central atrium where the worshippers gather to visit St Peter’s tomb, hear the Pope, celebrate festivals and join parades. Get ready to drop your jaws upon entering the Basilica. Holy Jesus is it beautiful! The tinted glass art, the numerous sculptures, the paintings, the scriptures. All I want to do is go back in time and appreciate the artists who painted, sculpted and built the Basilica with their own bare hands. One of those artists would be Michelangelo. There’s no way anyone can take in that amount of grandeur in one go. It’s too much!
After seeing the cathedral inside out, I recommend walking across Via della Conciliazone towards Castle of St Angelo and stand at the very start of Lungotevere Castello during sunset. Turn around and get the full blown view of Vatican city with a backdrop of pink skies and a brilliant sunset. I promise you won’t regret it.

CASTEL SANT’ANGELO AND ST ANGELO BRIDGE

Castel Sant'Angelo from St Angelo Bridge
Castel Sant’Angelo from St Angelo Bridge

Castel Sant’Angelo is a 2-nd century castle displaying art work in Renaissance-style museum. There’s a ticket of €7 to see the castle. I skipped it, instead I listened to an artist playing the harp while watching the sun gradually set on St Angelo Bridge. If you think that sounds boring, may be you should give it a try. Summer evenings in Rome are incredibly romantic and unforgettable.

Pretty bridges all around Rome
Pretty bridges all around Rome

Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi

FontanaQuattroFumi
Fontana dei Quattro Fumi

Another famous fountain in Rome, Fontana dei Quattro Fumi is equally gorgeous. And yes, equally crowded! It’s ineffable why I liked this fountain and piazza so much but the only word I could express for it is ‘vibrant’. The entire square was jam packed yet, there were beautiful street side restaurants, vendors selling souvenirs, there were artists painting, some performing, others being wonderful spectators. It was perfectly ‘Italian’ in every way.

PANTHEON

I love how the Italians have unearthed and preserved every little thing from their past. I wonder how proud they are of their ancestors, for blessing them with so much culture, art and history. The Pantheon is an iconic temple in Rome built with a dome and typical Renaissance tomb, like the one in Paris. I went there on the wrong day and wrong time (on a Sunday after 5pm). So I couldn’t go inside. Frankly I had seen so many churches and cathedrals by that time that I don’t think I would’ve done justice to this one.

PIAZZA SPAGNA

Piazza Spagna = Spanish square, home to the crowd-favorite baroque stairways called Spanish steps that lead to Obelisco Sallustiano (which is not a spell from Harry Potter, I checked). There’s nothing too special about these steps other than the fact that the piazza looks like a fun place to hangout and spend an hour one fine evening. Just like the steps at Times Square in New York, you sit by it, chat, eat, look around and have a good time.

OTHER PLACES TO SEE

Rome is a paradise for art and history lovers. The entire city is dotted with museums. Buy a museum pass and have the time of your life exploring Borghese Museum, National Roman Museum, Capitoline Museum.

Piazza Venezia is a square is a magnificent square that can be admired while on a bus ride across the city. Walking all around it will tire you out. The Piazza is lined by a beautiful marble monument – Altar of the Fatherland, Equestrian statue of Vittorio Emanuele II, a tomb, a museum, all in one complex. At the top of the museum complex is an open terrace, Terrazza delle Quadrighe, where you’ll get to see the most stunning 360 degree views of the city.

Michelangelo himself designed Capitoline Steps & Campidoglia hilltop square. People stroll around for better views of the entire neighborhood. I’d go to any lengths to witness Michelangelo’s works. As you reach to the top, you admire the structure and sculptures lined along the head of the stairs. On a sunny day, it’s quite exhausting really.

Largo di Torre Argentina is an archaeological site in the city and a sanctuary for stray cats. The park is full of adorable kitties sprawled in every corner sunbathing carelessly, waiting to be pampered by visitors. Cat lovers in this direction please!

Catacombs of Priscilla is the stuff of my nightmares, to be honest. It’s an underground cemetery with skulls and skeletons sticking out of walls. Some are intrigued by the concept so they go traipsing right in. I’m not one of those. If you are, check out this site before visiting.

You don’t have to check out all of these places. Pick the ones you absolutely want to see and skip the rest. No matter what, you’re going to love it in Rome. Thank me later!

The Ultimate Guide to Plan a Trip to Venice, Italy

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