It was 1996 when I made my first trip to Italy. My sister worked in the travel industry then and I accompanied her on a business trip. We met in Cannes, France and from there took a train to Milan and then Rome. During the day while she toured hotels I was on my own. It is one of my favorite things to be in a new city or new location with a map and no particular plans. I love to explore and discover, especially at my own pace. That first trip I saw the Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain and toured the Vatican Museums, St. Pauls Cathedral and the Sistine Chapel. As it happened, I also saw Pope John Paul II, and was standing within an amazing 6 feet of him. He emerged from the building and was getting into his car when he indicated to the security guards to move the barricades aside so he could approach a small group of people, including myself, resting on the steps. It was exciting and a complete surprise. An Italian woman next to me was screaming “Papa, Papa, Papa!” My sister and I had dinner in the oldest part of Rome and threw coins in the Trevi Fountain at midnight. My sister was evaluating a bus route from Rome to Florence, our next destination. Florence was wonderful, but the bus tour was not. I was on my own again in Florence, where she continued her business meetings and I once again explored a new city. Florence was beautiful. I toured the Uffizi Gallery and saw Michelangelo’s David in the Accademia. Back in April of 1996 there was no line to see the David. I walked right in and took these photographs, one of only a handful of people in the entire building. (On my second trip to Florence in 2001 the line to see David completely circled the building, and I skipped it, glad to have seen it in peace five years earlier.)
I loved the streets of Florence and of course the Duomo. The street market had wonderful shopping, of which I took great advantage. In the evening I would lay my treasures on the bedspreads and my sister and I would look over each purchase again. That’s part of the shopping fun. We had many, many incredible meals. One day we rented a car and drove southbound out of Florence into the Chianti region, following the trail of the black rooster. We stopped for lunch at a tiny place way up in the hills. It hardly even looked like a restaurant. We had our best meal there, including thistle ravioli and peach sorbet served in a frozen peach.
On the schedule that day was a tour of Vignamaggio, the estate where the movie “Much Ado About Nothing” was filmed in 1993 with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. It is in the most beautiful setting and we tasted wine from the estate and toured the rooms. I bought a bottle of Chianti Classico and two bottles of olive oil, which I dragged all over Florence and Venice before getting them home to the US. I’ve learned a thing or two since then, and try not to purchase heavy bottles halfway through my trip. Driving the rental car out of, and then back into Florence was rather exciting. With the many one way bridges and suicidal Vespas, it took the complete concentration of two people to manage safely.
From Florence we took another train to Venice, where we were met by a personal water taxi and taken to the hotel. What fun that was, and at the time, I didn’t realize how expensive it was. For future taxi rides we boarded the public water taxi for a much more reasonable price. I spent several days wandering the streets of Venice with a map and no agenda. I saw St. Marks Basilica and found a small church in the labyrinth of streets, the Church of Santa Maria Assunta, that has Tintoretto’s Assumption of the Virgin hanging behind the altar.
I loved Venice from the moment I stepped onto its streets. The glass was beautiful, sparkling in the windows of the many shops, and the architecture was amazing. We took a sunset gondola ride, where my sister took one of my all time favorite travel photos of myself, in the gondola with the Rialto Bridge in the background. We also took a side trip out to the island of Murano, where much of the glass blowing is done.
The food was fantastic. We had a three-hour lunch that included cuttlefish in its own ink sauce and ended with the best sorbetto in the world. We also had lunch at Harry’s. I was trying to speak the language and when I asked for the check “Il canto per favore”, (conto is check) the waiter said with a smile “You want me to sing?” We all laughed. And that is one of the best things I found out about Italy, everyone was charming. The people laughed a lot, and I don’t remember ever feeling terribly out of place or made to feel embarrassed. Our last night in Italy was in Venice. My sister had already gone to bed; she was working all day and I was on vacation. I couldn’t let this last night just slip quietly away, so I forced her out of bed and into her clothes and we walked to Piazza San Marco where we sat at one of the many cafes with a string quartet playing. We ordered hot chocolate, served in a silver pot, listened to the live music and watched the moon rise over the piazza. It was the perfect ending for a first trip to Italy, and one of my most lasting travel memories. The next day we took the train from Venice to Switzerland to catch our flight home.
The Vatican, Rome: http://www.vatican.va/
Florence’s Duomo: http://www.duomofirenze.it/index-eng.htm
The Uffizi Gallery: http://www.uffizi.com/
The Vignamaggio Estate: http://www.vignamaggio.it/
Harry’s Bar in Venice: http://www.harrysbarvenezia.com/
The Churches of Venice: http://www.churchesofvenice.co.uk/