05 Jun 2012

Tour of Italy, 2012

No Comments Cities, Tours

Wednesday May 9 2012:

Even the grey, raw dawn didn’t detract from the splendour of St Pancras as I dragged my damp baggage out of the Euston Road drizzle sometime before five am. Despite the early hour, it was clear Eurostar’s “cheap” deals were proving popular as the terminal was busy and the queue for the the only coffee outlet  already snaked into the departure lounge. However, Cafe Nero’s young baristars coped resolutely and the short wait enabled me to strike up a conversation with the guy in the tiger suit (who everyone else was staring at, but wouldn’t talk to) cycling to Andalucia for MacMillan Cancer Support – hi Cathal, hope it went well. You can read more about his challenge here

Although it seemed difficult to believe, this was my first Euro tour for nearly three years; injury and the increasingly pernicious demands of a depressing day job interfering with my travel plans in the interim. This time, I had chosen to travel during the day, in order to enjoy the scenery, heading initially to Turin, before eventually stepping out into a warm Florentine evening with the Renaissance facade of Santa Maria Novella straight in front of me.

Santa Maria Novella, Florence

Thursday May 10 2012:

Florence: the city that first took my breath away as a 16 year old and now, still as beautiful, but inevitably, even more crowded than I remember it. The Albergo Duilio hotel  is interesting in a quirky kind of way – a traditional building, small, but very clean, with a clever, en suite wet room, in an almost perfect location within walking distance of city, but away from crowds and, in Vincenzo, an extremely hospitable and helpful host. It also provides an ideal Italian breakfast: a voucher for coffee and pastry at the cafe across the road, the Cafe Communarde.

So, I start my first day in Italy proper with a velvety cappuccino, standing at the bar alongside some tasty Italian airline crew. Suitably invigorated, I cross the road to the Arno and stroll along towards the Ponte Vecchio.

The Ponte Vecchio

Even at 10 am it’s packed and, after a quick wander across to take in the views, I head  back and up towards the Uffizi to sniff around the plethora of tours available. Deciding to trust my own (fading) knowledge of Renaissance art later on, I head into the Piazza della Signoria and marvel at the statues – yes I know this David is a copy, but Neptune and Perseus are awesome and the Rape of the Sabine Women finally persuades me my hopeless school Latin wasn’t totally in vain.

One of Florence’s key attractions is its compact centre and, after securing  a late afternoon slot at the Uffizi from the booth at Orsanmichele (no queuing and no additional charges) I head up past the Cathedral and stop for a few moment to look at the Duomo and Baptistry.

The Duomo

It’s difficult to keep a space even for a few minutes, but Brunelleschi’s masterpieces retain their magic, even after five centuries.

On a hot, sunny day, the next logical stop is the marvellous Mercato Centrale,  whose stalls groan under the weight of cheese, ham and plump fresh vegetables. To get there, however, I have to negotiate the street stalls with their equally tempting array of leather goods and scarves, but fortunately I’m hungry, so for now anyway, I avoid the lure of a gorgeous Gladstone bag and follow my stomach to the food market.

After an afternoon nap, I’m back at the Uffizi for five pm. It’s busy, but not oppressively so and, although it’s difficult to secure an unrestricted view of Primavera, or the Birth of Venus, it’s empty enough in the early rooms to see the works of the Lippi family and and also, later on, to compare the Italian masters with the more realist school of Northern Europe.

Outside the Uffizi.

There’s never any a definitive length of time you should spend in a gallery, but an hour and a half seems about right: just enough to take in the depth of art treasure on show, but not too much to be overwhelmed.

All these marvels have made me hungry, again, so it’s back over the Ponte Vecchio in search of some sustenance. Found my way to Il Rifrullo  busy, but not with tourists and aperitivo buffet (€7 with drink) so good I doubt I’ll need any dinner.

From here it’s a short hop to Piazzale Michelangelo: where else to watch the sun setting over Florence and the Arno?

Sunset over the Arno

Friday May 11 2012:

The day starts well: another excellent coffee and more interesting airline guys. I try out a dummy run to the station in advance of tomorrow’s early start, waylaid en route, by a visit to the city’s English bookshop. More seriously, I find myself drawn back to the street market and, in particular, the leather stalls. I can be very persuasive when I want to convince myself I really need something, so force myself back on track to today’s first port of call –

the Church of Santa Maria Novella.

Garden of Santa Maria Novella

This is my first visit and I spend the rest of the morning and early afternoon enthralled by the masterpieces adorning this Dominican church. Masaccio’s fresco of The Trinity, Giotto’s Crucifix, Filippino Lippi’s frescoes for the Capella di Filippo Strozzi, before you even reach Ghirlandaio’s altar. A few more steps, another masterpiece: in some ways this is the highlight of revisiting Florence and the experience is marred only by a handful of brash American women taking photographs when specifically instructed not to do so.

A late lunch, a further selection of sumptuous leather bags and another plausible salesman – it would make more sense to wait until the final day of the holiday, but will they have these bags in Turin? – followed by a couple of hours reading in the shade.

The Campanile bell

Five pm and it’s cooled sufficiently for me to head back to the Campanile.

Rooftops in Florence

I still have a tiny instamatic print of the rooftops of Florence, taken on my school trip, its faded colours looking almost naive in today’s digital age. Today, the vistas taking in the domes and towers of the city, the Arno and its bridges and the surrounding Tuscan hills, are still stunning, their unique shades highlighted by the lowering sun.

This evening’s photos are sharper, but also the final confirmation I need another memento of Florence’s beauty to remember this visit. So, back to the leather stalls, momentarily panic when I can’t find the one I want, out with the credit card and then collapse into nearest bar, racked with guilt and the frightening realisation I have already spent the equivalent of Italy’s national debt on a leather bag.

That gorgeous Gladstone bag

However, every cloud and all that because, despite its dowdy decor and basic furniture, this place does a mean glass of rosario, the buffet is equally good and, it’s 1€ less than last night.  Unfortunately, in my initial hysteria, I completely forgot to memorise the name of the bar.

Saturday May 12 2012:

All too soon, my two days in Florence have come to an end and, just after 7.30 am, I thank Vincenzo for his hospitality, grab a quick coffee – clearly too early for the pilots today – and head for the station.

Florence: once seen, never forgotten

After my first visit I vowed I’d come back. Now, I mean to return again, maybe in the winter, maybe as part of a wider tour of Tuscany and its hills and towns. But, I will come back. Florence has that effect on me.

The train is routinely packed, but comfortable and on time. The trains also provide excellent storage space for large items of baggage at the end of each carriage – Virgin Trains, take note. Despite this, most of the Italian passengers seem intent on keeping their luggage, no matter how large or heavy, right beside them on their seats!

Rome: a city I’ve always wanted to visit but, until now, never quite arrived at. Termini station is log-jammed, but despite the crowds, the information booths are well-staffed and helpful and I’m soon making a (lengthy) walk to a peripheral platform for my first taste of Rome’s suburban transport system. And, it doesn’t disappoint: 1€ fare, fast trains with adequate space every 15 minutes, what’s not to like?

A bucolic image from Trastevere

I emerge out of Trastevere station to chaotic arterial traffic and a burning sun. Fortunately, the Hotel Roma Trastevere is only a few metres along the Viale di Trastevere and I’m able to park my expanding baggage until check in. Unfortunately, I forgot to ask for a map, so spend a rather pointless three hours mooching about in the immediate vicinity of the hotel. However, a tiny Arab cafe provides good coffee and an enormous sandwich and the views from the hill behind the main street open up right across the city, heightening my anticipation of what is to come.

This hotel is, in direct contrast to the Albergo Duilio,  modern and rather soulless in its public areas. However, the bedrooms are roomy, with a small balcony and the exquisitely tiled en suite the kind of facility you look forward to in a decent hotel. And, it supplies a readable map.

Santa Maria in Trastevere

So, after a short rest and shower and, armed with said map, I set off to investigate Trastevere after dusk.  Quickly realise that if I had wandered a further few hundred metres  earlier on, my lunchtime options would have included a cafe, bar or restaurant at every corner along the Via San Francesco. But at least it ensures I intend to make the most of Trastevere, now I’ve actually found it.

The Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere is thronged with families, tourists, street artists and people of all ages enjoying the balmy evening. It’s animpressive church, thought to be the first place of Christian worship in Rome and I nip in quietly, trying not to disturb the on-going Mass. Mosaics of saints and a series of panels by Cavallini are stunning and well-worth a future visit for a closer look.

A traditional way to see the sights

From the piazza it’s a short hop to Via Moro 15-16 and the divine La Renella. Considered by many to be the best bakery in Rome, its wood-fired ovens produce a delectable range of pizza al taglio, focaccio and biscuits that attract a most diverse range of customers; people waiting for a bus, priests, workers from nearby shops and well-dressed couples on their way for a night out in the city. Take your slice of pizza with you, or eat it at the long bench along the width of the bakery. It’s not salubrious, but at less than €2 for a delicious portion of pizza ai funghi, with mozzarella and pomodoro, I’m not complaining.

Trastevere at dusk

Originally the artisan area of Rome,Trastevere’a narrow streets, closeted squares, trattorias, cafes, bars and night clubs are now some of the most popular areas of the city, for residents and tourists alike. Even past nine pm, it’s still possible to browse a bookshop, or look round a boutique between sipping a cocktail and enjoying some traditional and (for Rome) reasonably- priced cooking in traditional and unpretentious restaurants.

Sunday May 13 2012:

Benefitting from a comfortable and uninterrupted night’s sleep, I’m up and about early, determined to make the most of my only full day in Rome. The hotel breakfast (usual unappetising stuff at an extra €6) is easily resisted, so I grab a decent enough cappuccino and pastry at the bar next door, before catching the No8 tram into the city.

Front of the Pantheon

In less than 10 minutes, I’m stepping off the tram in Largo di Torre Argentina. My plan is to see the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, check out the best coffee and also take in a few of the beautiful, small churches in the Centro Storico before it gets too hot and crowded. It’s hardly ambitious, but I’m not going to see all that Rome has to offer in a day and, part of the thrill of visiting the Eternal City, is to discover the wonders of the little, unheralded churches found on almost every corner of the city centre.

The Pantheon doesn’t disappoint and, standing for a few moments to appreciate this magnificent building, it is impossible not to wonder how it continues to stay up, without any apparent arches and vaults.

It’s not yet crowded, but busy enough to share the view of Raphael’s tomb:

Raphael’s tomb, the PantheonIt’s not yet crowded, but busy enough to share the view of Raphael’s tomb:

“Living, great nature feared he might out vie Her works, and dying, fears herself may die.”

Pieto Bembo’s inscription sums up, not just the impact of the great artist, but of the Pantheon itself.

I want to savour the memory of the Pantheon before it merges with the other sights I hope to see, so head east along to the Plazza San Eustachio   to try out what is generally regarded as the best coffee in the city, at its eponymous cafe.

Cafe San Eustachio

This tiny shop, selling all things coffee on one side, with a bar on the other was already crowded with locals and other tourists. Quickly learning the etiquette, I’m rewarded with the best creamy cappuccino I’ve ever tasted. It’s so good I almost order another, but promise myself that abstinence now will be rewarded later with a chance to sample their macchiatos.

Suitably rejuvenated, I walk back towards the Piazza Navona and, although the square is already filling with people,

The Fontana del Quattro Fiumi, Piazza Navona

the magnificent Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi still draws my eye and I’m hard pressed to drag myself away from Bernini’s magical fountain celebrating the four great rivers of the world.

It now hits me (better late than never, I suppose) that trying to visit churches on a Sunday morning is not my greatest-ever idea, given that I don’t intend to participate in Mass and, after a disappointing stop at La Caffeteria  – coffee very good, but pretentious service and silly prices – stroll down Via del Corso past the bizarre Palazzo Venezia and thence along to Arco di Tito.

The Colosseum

My next visit will concentrate on Classical Rome, as opposed to the Baroque centre, but today even just looking in on some of the ancient monuments, it is humbling to think of them in a historical context. How appropriate then, that on this sunny Sunday morning in May 2012, the entire length of the Via dei Fori Imperiali is packed full of children playing a mini-football tournament in the shadow of the Colosseum, the most famous arena of all.

Monday May 14 2012:

Pack up my goods and chattels, leave in the luggage room and head back into the city. I start with the Jesuit church of Sant’Ignazio and wonder around the spacious interior, gazing at the amazing Baroque ceiling showing St Ignatius entering paradise and trying to reconcile that with my understanding of the contribution to humanity of Ignatius and the Jesuits.  Ignatius, of course, isn’t actually buried here: he’s in the Gesu church a short stroll away that, conveniently, can be easily reached via San Eustachio cafe.

The Basilica of St Peter

Decide that, despite the shortages of time, I can’t really leave Rome without at least seeing the Vatican. So, head back to find a bus  – not sure which bus, but follow the priests and nuns congregated round the a particular stop and, happily, this piece of inspired logic delivers me safely to St Peter’s Square in under 15 minutes.

Seeing the Sistine Chapel is high on my list of “to-dos”, but that will have to wait for another visit. On this sunny, but fresh morning – ideal for my kind of sightseeing, but the Italians are swaddled in scarves and down jackets – I’m content to wander among the colonnades in Bernini’s best-known piazza, taking in the extent, both of the square, but also the beauty of the Basilica and its dome.

Frescoes in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

Back in the city, I make a point of seeing the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome’s only Gothic church and home to a host of art treasures. Filippino Lippi’s fresco of the Assumption in the Carafe chapel takes my breath away and I’m thrilled to stand for a few minutes in front of Michelangelo’s Christ Bearing the Cross.

But, unfortunately, that’s it, my time in Rome is up and it’s off to Tiburtina station to catch the bus to the Abruzzo the next stage of my travels.

Read about my week in Kokopelli.

Monday May 21 2012:

I say my goodbyes to Kevin and Jacqui as they drop me at Pescara station – very impressive modern building with good catering outlets and lots of lovely escalators to transport me and my ever-more-heavy bags. The sun’s out and Pescara, which looks almost like a resort on the Cote d’Azure, becomes another destination awaiting a return.

Fontana del Nettuno, Bologne

Another comfortable, civilised train journey – just how will I cope with Virgin and London Midland after this? – but the weather worsens as we head north and, by the time we reach Bologne, it’s as grey and dull as November in the Lake District.

Fortunately, the HotelInternazionale/en is well within trolley-bag distance of the station and I’m able to check in immediately.This is the most luxurious of the hotels on my trip, and today its comfortable room and plush ensuite are a welcome treat for my end-of-holiday shabbiness and constantly throbbing ankle.

Palazzo d’Accursio, Bologne

Bologne is compact and its characteristic porticos are ideal in the afternoon downpours – Glasgow take note – enabling me to wander about fairly aimlessly without getting soaked. I suss out Bottega del Caffe   and convince myself that 200g of their speciality coffee won’t make too much difference to my overweight bags. Their chocolate, disappointingly, is less impressive and a macchiato in the cafe is average at best.

Bologna is now considered by some as the foodie capital of Italy, however,  this evening I sample the more basic end of its culinary offerings with a visit to Pizzarie Altero, virtually across the Via Indipendenza from the hotel. Ignore the strip lighting and wait your turn in the queue and you will be rewarded with an excellent choice of pizza al taglio (up there competing with Renella) for under €2 a slice.

Central Bologne – between the showers

Bologne’s history as a hot bed of socialism has always intrigued me and its leftish leanings are still evident in the names of many of its streets and squares and any city with Rosa Luxemburg as a bus terminal definitely deserves another visit – a taste of socialism perhaps might be an appropriate theme to sample its culinary and political heritage in the future?

Tuesday May 22 2012:

Another day, another train journey: this time the short hop (90 minutes) to Turin and the end of my tour. Fortunately, the sun is shining and  Hotel Dock Milano  (not as plush as yesterday and en suite wet room even smaller than in Florence, but perfectly adequate once I get the safe to work) is right across the road from the station.

One of Turin’s ubiquitous book carts

Usual story of too much to see and far too little time at my disposal, so concentrate on getting a feel for the city and checking out some of the best cafes. Start by grabbing a sandwich and drink and head for the nearest park and, already, pick up on one novel aspect of Turin’s street life: the mobile book cart, stationed at the corner of streets and squares.

I’m soon on my way to Via San Tommaso, to visit its eponymous cafe, reputably the original home of Lavazza. First impressions are heartening – a little bar packed with non-touristy looking people drinking small cups of coffee.

The crowded San Tommaso bar

And the verdict? The macchiato from heaven, the very best I’ve ever tasted; honestly. It’s only two pm and I do want to see more of Turin, so, regrettably, I force myself away from San Tommaso without trying its famous bicerin (cappuccino fortified with brandy) vowing to return this evening.

Given its location on the northern borders of Italy, some of Turin’s most famous cafes have more in common with those in central Europe. Indeed, Baratti and Milano  and Cafe Mulassano  would not look out of place in Vienna or Budapest. But be warned, although the gelato in B&M and coffee in Mulassano were both excellent, the prices you pay for gazing at their marble fittings and Belle Epoque interiors are high and in B&M  be prepared to be treated with contempt by some of its more mature staff.

Cafe society, Turin style

Continuing my sequence of cheap eats, in the evening I dine at Brek  An interesting concept, and very popular with workers, families and sole diners, it’s essentially a self-service restaurant where you choose whatever combination whets your taste buds. My generous portions of pasta, salad, bread, fruit salad, bottle of water, 250ml jug of house red and coffee came in at a very reasonable €13.

Wednesday May 23:

The last day of my tour of Italy and, with some sadness, I cross the road to Porta Susa station just after seven am in time to catch the TGV back to Paris.

 

Travelling to Italy by train is easy, enjoyable and economic, read my tips on how to go about it.

 

Highlights:

Coffee: can’t quite decide between San Eustachio in Rome and San Tommaso in Turin, so will go for the cappuccino in San Eustachio and the macchiato in San Tomasso

Gelato: has to be the amaretto flavour in Baratii and Milano, Turin, despite the service

Pizza: no competition here: La Renella in Rome

Hotel: toss up between the style and facilities of Hotel Internazionale in Bologne and the hospitality, original building and location of Albergo Duilio in Florence

Overall: probably  re-visiting Florence, but Raphael’s tomb in the Pantheon comes a close second

And: being able to travel across western Europe and around cities, using efficient, clean, affordable public transport, although this always makes  returning to the UK’s third word infrastructure eminently depressing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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