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A tale of three Italian cities

Rome. Florence. Pisa. I’ve just visited them all for the first time. In five days.

Absorbing the thousands of years of history and art in these three great cities would be an overwhelming task at the best of times.

To do it properly in such a short time is, quite frankly, impossible.

But, with apologies in advance for my lack of knowledge of history, art and architecture, here are my first impressions of three Europe’s most iconic cities.

We spent our first day in Rome in another country: Vatican City.

The Vatican Museums contain too much to be absorbed in one visit, and the experience was hampered by the fact that many of the artworks are badly lit or have too little explanation (at least for those of us without audio or human guides).

But we came across totally unexpected gems like an exquisite bronze crucifixion by Matisse, just one of the pieces in the Vatican’s modern art collection that includes masterpieces by Chagall, Dali and Bacon, among many others.

And then there is the Sistine Chapel. A room of vivid colour, the like of which I have never seen before. Apparently, there is some controversy about restoration of Michelangelo’s ceiling, but it looked pretty good to me!

St Peter’s Square is huge. A great, open space leading up to the basilica of the same name, one of the largest churches in the world, and widely regarded as one of the finest. I would not disagree!

As for Rome, I loved the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo. It is a major church, but more manageable than St Peter’s, and especially notable for two paintings by the great Caravaggio.

I threw three coins into the wonderfully over-the-top Trevi Fountain, almost blinded by its newly-cleaned white marble in the February sunshine.

The Pantheon, originally a Roman temple and now a church, is an amazingly well-preserved and impressive building, both inside and out.

We visited the Colosseum, which, on the inside, is essentially a 2,000 year old Wembley or Hampden with 80 exits to ensure the rapid exit of the crowd – such attention to health & safety even then!

Most interestingly, given the intertwining of the history of the Jews and Europe that has been a theme of our trip, the stadium was built with money from the sacking of Jerusalem and was built using the prisoners taken from the city as slave labour.

We spent just one day exploring Florence, leaving a day ahead of our schedule partly because of the dreadful weather, partly because the battery level in our campervan was getting dangerously low.

The undoubted highlight was Michelangelo’s David. This 5 metre high statue, carved from a single piece of marble, was even more beautiful in reality than I had expected, breathtaking in fact.

We didn’t visit the Uffizi or any other galleries or museums: our loss I’m sure. We did go to the Piazza del Duomo, and I really liked the green and white marble exteriors of its three signature buildings: the Cathedral, the Baptistery and the Bell Tower. Sadly, I thought the inside of the cathedral uninspiring.

Perhaps it was the grey, cloudy skies, or that my expectations of the city at the heart of the Renaissance were too high, but Florence just didn’t grab me.

Pisa, however, looked like I had expected Florence to look – a vibrant medieval city. I loved it and I’m sure it wasn’t just the brilliant sunshine.

The mix of grand,and not-so-grand buildings enclosing the Piazza del Cavalieri made it one of my favourite squares of all the cities we have visited so far.

And the Piazza dei Miracoli was unexpectedly beautiful. It contains not just the tower that we’ve all heard of – which really does look like it’s about to fall over – but an equally magnificent baptistery and cathedral, plus the Campo Santo, a large rectangular cloister used as the burial place for wealthy and notable Pisans over the centuries.

Each has been cleaned recently, so their white marble glistened brilliantly in the sun. The Baptistery in particular is truly beautiful, containing a 13th century pulpit by Pisano, said to be the work that started the Renaissance. And, as we heard in a stunning two minutes of singing from a guide, it has perfect acoustics.

One of the things I’ve learnt on this trip is that it’s easy, for a Philistine like me anyway, to get culture overload. There are times when I really don’t want to go into another magnificent church or look at another 16th century artwork!

Bearing that in mind, and knowing that there is so much more to Florence than we saw last week, I’m still not sure I feel drawn to return.

With Rome, there is always the feeling that you don’t know what’s round the next corner – it could be another Egyptian obelisk, a row of designer stores or a 2,000 year old statue. I think with a couple more visits to get to know it better, I could come to fall for its undoubted charms.

And Pisa? Happy to go back anytime, though someone would have to pay me a lot of money to go up the 300 plus steps to the top of the Leaning Tower!

Explore the cities:

  • The official guide to Rome, capital of Italy, is here
  • Plan your visit to Florence here
  • There is more to Pisa than a leaning tower, see here
  • A guide to the Vatican City here

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