05 September 2014

Mediterranean Travels, Part 3: Florence and Rome

These two days were by far the craziest and most surreal of the entire trip. When I first became aware of our cruise itinerary, one of my first thoughts was, "how on earth are we supposed to see Rome in one day?!" I felt similarly about Florence. These were two cities I'd dreamed of visiting all my life and it was overwhelming to imagine having only hours to experience them. But by doing our homework ahead of time and committing to a go-with-the-flow attitude, we managed to enjoy two nearly perfect and truly unforgettable days!

Florence: First up was Florence. Since our cruise ship actually docked in Livorno, we chose to book a bus transfer excursion through the cruise line. The bus ride through Tuscany was gorgeous in itself-- don't these sunflower fields seem almost too good to be true?!

By the time we arrived in Florence, it was much later than we'd expected due to typical group bus tour shenanigans, like excessive bathroom stops and lengthy discussions regarding meeting spots. So as soon as we were let loose, we were in a hurry to make the most of the five hours we had left. Luckily, my father-in-law had pre-purchased Firenze cards, allowing us to skip lines everywhere we went and enjoy free wi-fi and other perks. If you're planning to visit Florence, especially in the summertime, I'd highly recommend getting these cards, unless you want to spend a good portion of your trip waiting in long lines. At 72€ they were pricy considering the short length of our visit, but without them we would not have had time to see all the sights we wanted to see. If you are visiting for longer than one day, I think the price is easily justifiable as it provides free admission to all major museums and attractions.

After leaving our group, we made a beeline for the Accademia, to see Michelangelo's "David." As a graduate of art history, this was definitely on my bucket list, and I'd also looked forward to seeing Michelangelo's unfinished "Prisoners." When it comes to iconic, massively popular works of art like "David" I try not to set my expectations too high. (Perhaps because my "Mona Lisa" experience at the Louvre was such a letdown.) But "David" absolutely impressed. The enormous scale alone awes, and examining the lifelike details up close, imagining Michelangelo's artistic process, was an unforgettable experience for me.

After seeing "David," I looked forward to a part of our trip that I had not anticipated. One of my best friends (since junior high) and her husband were backpacking around Europe during the same time we were there. Before our trips, we'd compared itineraries and were disappointed to find that our stops did not line up. So close, but yet so far! Well the night before we arrived in Livorno (Florence), I happened to log into my Instagram account and saw my friend's husband post that they too were on their way to Florence. We still can't figure out how we missed this before, but we were ecstatic to find out that our paths were going to cross, and even though we were short on time, I couldn't imagine not meeting up with our friends while we were there! We made a plan to meet in front of the Duomo at noon, and scanning the crowds for Kristen's bright red hair felt like a scene straight out of a movie! When we spotted each other, we couldn't stop laughing about how crazy it was to run into each other in Florence, Italy!

We invited our friends to spend the afternoon with our family, so they happily joined in on our frantic attempt to experience Florence on a time crunch. We grabbed pizza on the go, as we walked toward the Uffizi Gallery.

Thankfully, most of the sights to see in Florence are within walking distance of each other. It's really such an easy city to explore and could be done at a leisurely pace in a few days. We thoroughly enjoyed the Uffizi Gallery. I loved seeing some of my favorite Renaissance paintings and was pleasantly surprised by their small but wonderful Baroque collection. The museum itself is very beautiful as well-- I couldn't stop admiring the detailed ceilings.

After exploring the Uffizi, we grabbed some gelato and Brandon and I took off with Kristen and her husband to wander the streets and see the famous Ponte Vecchio, before returning back to the meeting spot to board our bus back to Livorno. Spending time with our good friends so far away from home ended up being a major highlight of the trip for me! I can't get enough of life's little serendipitous surprises!

Overall, we enjoyed Florence, but to be honest, it was the most stressful day of our trip. It was difficult to experience a beautiful city in just five hours, and we struggled to not let our frustration get the better of us. My favorite moments of the day were when we were able to let go of the pressure to check things off our list, and simply be. When traveling, it is so important to me to remember to slow down. Sometimes you need to forget about running from monument to monument and enjoy a coffee with a side of people watching. The best memories we make are almost always unplanned!

Rome: For our day in Rome, we had booked a private van and tour guide in advance through our cruise. After our crazy day in Florence, we were bracing ourselves for more of the same, knowing that Rome would be overwhelming. But having a private tour made all the difference! We got an early start and the drive from Civitavecchia, our port, to Rome went by quickly. Our driver dropped us off at the Colosseum, where we met up with our tour guide for the day, Moses.

What struck me about Rome compared to other cities I've been to was the way in which these famous, ancient monuments seemed to be just plopped down in the middle of everything. Obviously I understand that the city has been built up around these sites, but driving along a road and all of a sudden seeing the Colosseum just ahead or the dome of St. Peter's popping up over some shops felt so surreal.

My experience of the Colosseum felt very much like my first experience of the Eiffel Tower. You see images of these monuments all your life almost to the point where they become cliches. So to meet them face to face and find that despite all their fame and our overexposure to their images, they are not at all cliche, is so pleasantly surprising. The Colosseum and the Forum were so stunning in person, so magnificent in scale. Observing the lustre and color variations in the marble was memorable for me, as I will now never think of these "cliche" monuments the same.

Imagining the process of constructing these sites in a time void of so much of the technology we rely on today is so awe-inspiring-- and all of the history that had occurred where we walked was almost unfathomable. It all just managed to be so much more beautiful than I had expected. Our tour guide was so very knowledgeable-- even my history buff husband was excited to pick up some new facts along the way. The way he escorted us quickly past all the lines and tour groups throughout the day was so awesome that I had trouble not feeling guilty.

After the Colosseum we greatly enjoyed our tour of the Forum.

A few days before, we had filled out a brief survey designed to gauge our sightseeing priorities while in Rome. We all wanted to experience the Vatican, but since we had selected the ancient sites as a higher priority, we figured the chances were doubtful. When our tour guide managed to schedule the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter's Basilica onto itinerary, we were shocked and thrilled.

Skipping the seemingly endless line once again, Moses whisked us through the Vatican Museums, showing us just the highlights of the collections. An unexpected favorite for me was the Map Room, with its stunning ceiling.

We then viewed the famous ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (no photos allowed) and made our way to the Basilica. In college I made a pretty in depth study of St. Peter's, so even though I knew what I'd be seeing, you just can't explain it until you see it with your own eyes. Upon entering the cathedral, our little group became instantly silent as we each attempted to take it all in. Every detail is divine and the enormous scale is incomprehensible.

I felt so thankful to our guide for letting us experience the Vatican and cannot imagine our day in Rome without these sites. After a quick stop in a gift shop just outside the Colonnade, Moses hurried us to the Pantheon-- our final specified "must-see." The Pantheon has always been one of my favorite buildings and I've dreamed of seeing it one day. 

The order we'd seen everything in that day created an interesting context for viewing the Pantheon. Since the condition of the building appears similar to St. Peter's it was amazing to remind ourselves that it was built closer to the time of the ancient sites we'd started our day with. This stop was a major highlight, in a day filled with highlights.

Once again, we grabbed some pizza for lunch-- got to sit down this time-- and then our tour guide directed us to one of his favorite gelato shops. Located just down the street from The Pantheon, with over 150 flavors "Della Palma" ended up being our favorite gelato of the trip! (And you can trust us since we were basically on a gelato tour of Italy, making us official gelato experts!) If you ever go to Rome, try it-- you won't be disappointed!

We absolutely loved Rome! It was beautiful, historical, safe, stylish, romantic-- I could go on and on. Before we'd even driven away, I already couldn't wait to come back one day, and watch "Roman Holiday" on repeat once I got home!

Have any of you spent time in Florence or Rome? Assuming you spent more time there than us, what were your highlights? Any random recommendations to share?

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