Afternoon in Milan

It wasn’t originally part of my plan for us to visit Milan while we were in Italy. I had hoped to book a day of train travel all the way from Florence to Paris, but since that wasn’t possible, we had to overnight somewhere along the way. We didn’t want to take an overnight train as our main reason for choosing to travel by train instead of flying was to see a bit of the countryside.

We arrived in Milan early in the afternoon the day before yesterday and had the rest of the day to experience a bit of the city. Milan is a financial hub as well as a global capital of fashion and design. At first glance, it looks much like any other modern city, but it has a historical side as well.

As soon as we were settled into our guest house near the train station, we jumped on the metro and headed for the Duomo, the Milan Cathedral. Dedicated to the Nativity of St Mary, it is the seat of the Archbishop of Milan. We’ve seen a lot of amazing churches on this trip, but emerging from the metro right in front of the Duomo was definitely another breathtaking moment!

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The sheer immensity of the cavernous interior was amazing. Look at the size of that pillar!

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It was the stained glass windows that most astounded me though. There was no way to truly capture them in photographs. This shows just two of the three enormous panels at the front of the building and there were many more narrower ones along its sides.

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Each section depicts a scene from the Old or New Testament. The ones toward the top are so high up that we couldn’t even see the details in them.

After visiting the interior of the church, we took an elevator to the rooftop which was without question the highlight of our short stay in Milan. We could have saved the price of a ticket and climbed the approximately 250 stairs, but our old knees have had a major workout on this trip and the elevator was worth every cent. It also saved us time which we didn’t have a lot of.

After leaving the Duomo, we walked through the gorgeous and glitzy Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a very high end shopping mall. With it’s glass ceiling, the whole place has a light, airy feel.

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The entire floor of the gallery is mosaic and near the centre is the image of a bull. Tradition has it that good luck will come to anyone who places their heel on the bull’s testicles and spins in a circle three times. Of course, I had to place my heel in the indentation that has been worn into the floor in that spot and spin myself around!

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Our final stop in Milan was Castello Sforzesco, a medieval castle in the middle of a mostly modern city. Built first as a fortress in 1368 and later transformed into a magnificent palace, it now houses many museums. We didn’t have time to enter any of those, but we enjoyed a quick exploration of the grounds.

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The next morning, we were back on the train on our way to Paris but very glad that we’d had to stop in Milan!

 

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Fabulous Florence

When I started planning this trip, I was undecided about whether or not to include Florence on the itinerary, but I’m very glad I did! We arrived by high speed train from Rome at about noon on Tuesday after sharing our coach with a group of 27 fifth and sixth graders embarking on a four day field trip with two of their teachers. As retired grade school teachers, we felt right at home, but also very glad that we weren’t responsible for all those excited children!

Our guest house in Florence was a short walk from the train station and just off the corner of Piazza del Duomo in the very heart of Florence. Absolutely everything we wanted to see and do was within walking distance, so we were able to pack plenty into our day and a half there.

As soon as we checked in and dropped off our luggage, we headed out to see the Duomo, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. The complex is so enormous that it was impossible to squeeze it all into a photo and so ornate that you really need to look at various parts of it close up.

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Surprisingly, the interior, though beautiful wasn’t as ornate as some of the other churches we’ve visited.

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From the Duomo, we walked a very short distance to Piazza del Signoria in front of the grand Palazzo Vecchio, headquarters of the city government as well as a museum. The highlight here was the replica of Michelangelo’s David standing in the exact spot where the original stood for over 400 years until it was moved into the Accademia Gallery.

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Perhaps the most famous sight of all in Florence is the nearby Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s oldest bridge, that has spanned the Arno River since the 12th century! Little jewelry shops line both sides of the interior of the bridge.

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The riverside is lined with fascinating architecture.

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Neither of us are art connoisseurs, but the next day we spent a very enjoyable morning at the Uffizi Gallery, one of the world’s top art museums, taking in its enormous collection of Renaissance masterpieces. After we’d made our way through about one quarter of it, we decided we’d have to pick up the pace or we could easily be there all day! The sculptures were the greatest attraction for me, especially the busts of historical figures. It was amazing to gaze into the faces of long gone heroes of the past like Agrippa on the left and Trajan on the right.

This sculpture representing the martyrdom of St. Lawrence especially intrigued me due to the fact that the artist, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, was only 15 years old when he carved it in the early 1600s! What amazing talent!

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A vast number of the pieces in the Uffizi are of a religious nature, many of them stunning altar pieces like this one.

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Images of the Madonna abound. I was particularly attracted to this one by Botticelli. If you look closely, you can see that the angels on either side of Mary and the Christ child are holding a crown of thorns and crucifixion nails.

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A huge print of this painting by Caravaggio was hanging at the head of our bed in the guest house!

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After leaving the gallery we crossed the river and made the steep climb up to Piazza Michelangelo where the views of the city were absolutely stunning!

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I could easily spend endless hours wandering the tiny streets of Florence, but a day and a half was enough to capture the highlights.

Final days in Rome

After two very intensive days in Rome, we decided that days three and four should be a bit more laid back and relaxing. We were able to manage that without sacrificing any of the things we most wanted to see and do.

Our third morning was spent exploring Castel Sant’Angelo, originally commissioned by Roman emperor, Hadrian, in the first century AD as a mausoleum to house his remains and those of his descendants. Unlike other Roman monuments, the mausoleum never fell into disrepair. Over the centuries, in addition to serving as a tomb, it has been used as an impregnable fortress, a prison, a magnificent Renaissance dwelling, and now a national museum.

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Beginning in the 14th century, the popes converted it into a castle. It was eventually connected to St. Peter’s Basilica by a covered fortified corridor and the fortress was used as a refuge by Pope Clement VII for several months during a time of siege. It owes its present name to a medieval legend. In the year 590, the Archangel Michael is said to have appeared there before Pope Gregory the Great to announce the end of a plague.

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Once inside, we felt as if we’d taken a huge step back in time.

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I loved the statues of the Archangel Michael as a strong warrior. The first one shown here is inside the castle walls and the bronze one is on the pinnacle.

From the top, we had amazing views like this one with St. Peter’s Basilica in the centre.

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We could see that there was a storm moving in though and sure enough, before we got back down to ground level, it hit with a vengeance! We sat under cover and ate our lunch while lightning flashed, thunder rumbled, and rain poured down. Thankfully, it blew over and we were able to wait it out.

Leaving the castle, we made our way across the famed Ponte Sant’Angelo or Bridge of Angels, completed in 134 AD by Emperor Hadrian to span the Tiber and connect the city centre to his newly constructed mausoleum.

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We eventually made our way back to the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone on Piazza Navona for a free concert. There we listened to two choirs sing entirely a cappella. We couldn’t understand the words, of course, but the acoustics in the 17th century church were amazing and the voices blended beautifully.

We started our final day in Rome at Villa Borghese, a huge public park. It was a peaceful spot away from the usual crowds of tourists, but after wandering a bit, we decided to move on.

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At nearby Piazza del Popolo we climbed up to the Pincio Terrace for a beautiful view of the piazza and Rome itself.

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A visit to Rome wouldn’t be complete without sitting on the famous Spanish Steps. This 135 step staircase was opened in 1735 to link the Spanish Embassy near the bottom of the steps with the Trinita del Monti, the late Renaissance church at the top. They were made particularly popular by the 1953 movie, Roman Holiday, starring Audrey Hepburn. It was a great place to sit for awhile soaking up the sun, watching the world go by, and treasuring our final moments in Rome.

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Second day in Rome

Our second day in Rome was every bit as intense as the first. We started with an easy 20 minute walk from our guest house to the Colisseum, the largest amphitheatre built during the Roman Empire and definitely a highlight of any first time visit to Rome.

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We purchased a two part tour that included first the Colosseum and then the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. In both cases, we had plenty of time to explore on our own after the formal tour was over and both were very informative.

The Colosseum has suffered a great deal of damage over it’s two thousand year history and yet it’s still hugely impressive. It’s sheer size is quite overwhelming! Coming from a part of the world that’s only been settled for a little over a century, it’s hard for us to wrap our heads around the fact that we are seeing and walking in structures that are so very ancient!

Our tour took us down to the arena floor level where gladiators once fought!

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The Roman Forum and most of the ruins on Palatine Hill, the most central of Rome’s seven hills and the area where Romulus supposedly founded the city in 753 BC, have not survived as well as the Colosseum, but to those of us with an interest in history and archaeology, they are fascinating. Here, the likes of Julius Caesar lived and walked! These ruins were once palatial palaces, basilicas, banqueting halls, and places of government.

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Once we left the Palatine Hill area, we continued to walk through and by other ruins including the Forum of Trajan, the last imperial forum built in Rome.

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As we continued walking (yes, we’ve been walking miles every day!) we came upon the enormous white structure topped with bronze chariots that we’d previously been by on the bus and that is visible from practically every viewpoint in the city. Always curious, we decided to find out what it was and whether or not we could go inside. The Vittorio Emanuele II Monument, also known as the Altar of the Fatherland, is national monument or war memorial and we were welcome to enter.

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A quick look around inside showed us room after room of Italian regimental flags in glass cases, all looking very much alike to us. I’m sure there was more than that to see, but it quickly became apparent to us that it wasn’t a place that held much interest for us, so we exited and continued to explore.

We ended our day on a fun note with a visit to the Mouth of Truth outside the entrance to the Santa Maria in Cosmedin church. Made famous by the 1953 movie, Roman Holiday, with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, legend has it that the massive stone figure will bite off the hands of liars. It isn’t known how or when this belief originated, but tourists like ourselves line up to pop our hands in the mouth and have our photos taken!

Thankfully, Richard and I both walked away with our hands!

First day in Rome

If you can’t handle crowds, especially crowds of tourists, Rome is not the place for you! Our first two days here were intensive; jam packed with must-do, must-see places that we’d only heard of and dreamed of until now. Yes, there were crowds, but everyone was happy to be there and for the most part, we managed to avoid the incredibly long line ups by arranging “skip the line” passes in advance.

Early on our first morning, we headed to the Vatican City, in reality a separate country inside Rome! We took a tour of the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel which was perhaps a bit more hurried than we would have liked, but we learned a lot more and navigated the crowds much more easily than if we had tried to do it on our own. From late April until October, more than 20 000 people pass through the museum every day, six days a week!

Here’s an early morning look at St. Peter’s Square with the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in the centre and a 4000+ year old Egyptian obelisk that was brought to Rome by Caligula in 37 AD on the left.

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The Vatican Museum houses a massive number of paintings, sculptures, tapestries and other works of art collected by popes throughout the centuries. The sheer size of the collection is really quite overwhelming. Sculpture is probably my favourite art form, so that’s mostly what my camera captured.

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The floors and especially the ceilings throughout the enormous museum building are works of art in their own right. Imagine the work that went into a ceiling like this one when this is only a tiny portion of it!

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Unfortunately, taking photographs isn’t allowed inside the Sistine Chapel where we gazed in amazement at Michelangelo’s ceiling, his Last Judgement, and the frescos lining the walls.

After our tour, we made our way into St. Peter’s Basilica, the world’s largest church and what is regarded as one of the Roman Catholic Church’s holiest shrines. My photos don’t really do it justice, but here’s one to give you an idea of the immense size and ornateness of the interior.

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After leaving the Vatican, we took a Hop On, Hop Off bus around it’s route to get a better idea of the layout of the city. We had 72 hour passes that allowed us to ride it as often as we wanted which was handy. While we did use the metro and city buses as well, we sometimes found the Hop On, Hop Off to be the best way to get where we wanted to go. Since arriving in Europe, I’ve been extremely grateful for our year in Japan as it really prepared these Alberta prairie hicks for things like big city metro systems!

Our first day in Rome also included a visit to the Basilica of St John Lateran, the oldest and largest cathedral in Rome and the official seat of the Bishop of Rome, the pope. Less visited by tourists, it was was a more peaceful and relaxing place to visit, especially the 13th century cloister.

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The nave of the basilica is lined with statues of saints, so in honour of our oldest son and our oldest and youngest grandsons who all have saint names, here from left to right, are Matthew, Andrew, and Simon.

Next on our busy first day agenda was the famous Trevi Fountain, the world’s largest Baroque fountain. According to legend, if you toss a coin into the fountain, you’ll return to Rome someday, so of course we had to do that! The vast sum of money that is collected goes to charity. We also enjoyed our first Italian gelato at the fountain.

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A short walk took us from the Trevi Fountain to the Pantheon. Once a temple to the gods of ancient Rome, it was later turned into a church.

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Continuing on, we ended our day of exploration at Piazza Navona. One the prettiest and most popular of Rome’s many plazas, it boasts three ornate fountains and is always a happening place.

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Just in case we hadn’t visited enough churches that day, we also peeked into the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone on the edge of the piazza! While our first day in Rome focused mainly on churches, the next was all about ancient Rome. That will have to wait for another blog post on another day though!