Rome + Venice + Florence, Italy | Veni, Vidi, Amavi

 · Day 1 – Rome · Airbnb · River Tiber · Pantheon · Piazza Navona · Sant’Eustachio il Caffè · Aventine Hill · Giardino deli Aranci · Knights of Malta Keyhole · Roseto di Roma Capitale · Circo Massimo · Trastevere · Dar Poeta · Italian Gelato ·
 · Day 2 – Rome  · Vatican Museums · Sistine Chapel · Grazie and Graziella · Fontana di Trevi ·
· Day 3 – Rome · Cycling · The Spanish Steps, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier · Colosseum · The Roman Forum · Metro · Train · Water Taxi
· Day 4 – Venice · Piazza San Marco · Campanile di San Marco · The Clock Tower · Saint Mark’s Basilica · Bridge of Sighs · Nero di Seppie · Isola di San Michele · Gondola Ride ·
 · Day 5 – Florence · Espresso · Uffizi Gallery · Duomo · Ponte Vecchio · Cannolo · Michelangelo’s David · Galleria dell’Accademia · Bistecca alla Fiorentina · The Lion’s Fountain · Secret Bakery · Red Garter ·
 · Day 6 – Florence  · The San Lorenzo Market · Leather Market · Mercato Centrale · Chianti Wine Tour · Riseccoli · Santa Margherita · 

We Came, We Saw, We Loved

There is no better way to describe so simply what my experience in Italy was like. Earlier this year, my sister Rachel found out she had been accepted to study abroad for a month in Rome. I couldn’t pass up the chance to join her and spend time exploring! Join me as I recall by day the adventures that were had in Rome, Venice and Florence, on what turned out to be the trip of a lifetime.

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Rome, Italy

My venture to Italy started out in the most unsuspected way. Flying standby as I do, I was a little anxious that I would not get a seat on the flight because the majority of seats had filled up last minute. With a mixture of God’s grace and sheer luck, myself and a fellow Flight Attendant were able to snag the last two seats on board.We introduced ourselves as we made our way down the jet bridge, and I soon found that my new friend was taking a solo trip to the eternal city to celebrate his birthday (how cool, right!?). Immediately I asked if he wanted to adventure to me, and the rest is history. We started as two unknown strangers exploring an unknown place, and became great friends! Situations like this are what make this world so wonderful. Human connection, sharing experiences and living the life you dream. Jose, thank you for being a part of my Italy adventure.

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Rome, Italy


Day 1 [Rome]

We started out our first morning with a lengthy walk. Besides the heavy backpack, my spirits were high breathing in all I could of the city. Already it seemed like we had stepped through a portal to a time long ago, oddly sprinkled with a tourist here and there. Italy was making a very strong first impression.

I arrived to my first ever Airbnb, and was delighted to find it exactly as described, and located right south of Vatican City! It had a beautifully draped window that let in the perfect amount of light to wake me gently to the morning, as air whisked through the leaves of the orange tree right outside. It was clean, well kept, and completely privatized. They also left chocolates on the pillow in the morning, so it was pretty much a dream come true.

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Airbnb in Rome

Side note: I would absolutely recommend using Airbnb for your travel lodging, because it offers the best in unique experience and deals!

As per usual, I hadn’t had any sleep on the flight, but I wasn’t ready to curl into bed just yet. There was so much to see! The timing worked out perfectly for us to make our way across the River Tiber to meet up with my sister for lunch. Thus began the over-indulgence of all food Italian that took place solidly for the next week. We stopped at a small (and very common) cafe near her school, and I was asked if I wanted water. Apparently this is something you have to pay for, although I didn’t mind much, because I always had the choice for acqua frizzante (sparkling water), which is my favorite! Another thing I definitely didn’t mind was that at every meal, no matter the time of day, wine was a must. We think we love wine in the States, but let me tell you, they’ve got us beat over in Italy. It definitely makes sense though, I would be drinking wine constantly if it all tasted as good as it does over there!

After my sister and her friends had to return to class (lame), Jose and I continued on to some of the must-see spots in Rome. We started by making our way to the Pantheon, which translates from Greek “temple of every god.” It’s a huge Roman temple, that has been used as a church since its beginnings in the 7th century. When you look up inside, you see the world’s largest concrete dome, a title held for the last 2,000 years.

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Pantheon Dome

It was completely surrounded by tourists, but the Pantheon was fitting for the challenge. Even as we came upon it, my mouth gaped open at the sheer size of it. I found it fascinating that something so historic and preserved could make it’s place in the midst of all the normal office and residential buildings around. This theme of greatness so closely surrounded by the ordinary became characteristic of the landmarks we saw on this trip.

Pantheon

Next we made our way to Piazza Navona, which is one of the most famous squares in Rome. This area was a little less congested, and here I started to feel the romance that so peacefully flowed through the city and all it’s inhabitants. On the closer end we heard sweet music being played, and beyond we saw many similar groups scattered about. Their different tunes reflected the people surrounding, either watching, walking or even dancing along to the nearest musician. It was delightful to watch, and even more exciting to see the Baroque Roman architecture that adorned the square. Below is Fontana del Moro seated right before the church Sant’Angnese in Agone on the west side of the square.

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Piazza Navona

Right in between the Pantheon and Piazza Navona was an adorable coffee shop Sant’Eustachio il Caffè, which is famous for their home-roasted beans, actually blended with water from an ancient aqueduct. Insanely cool, right? It also had it’s beginnings way back in the 1930s! Well to make things even better, when we walked in we noticed people standing at a high-top bar shooting down espresso. This was my kind of place. If you know anything about me, it’s that I get bored easily… I’m pretty all over the place (literally where the name came from), and often get distracted. When I drink coffee at home, it’s always cold well before I have the time to finish it. So shooting down a couple shots of espresso has become habit, and apparently is just part of the culture in Italy. Was I an Italian in another life?

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Sant’Eustachio il Caffè

With plenty of time to shoot down espresso the rest of the week, I ordered a small side step to my normal double espresso order. It was called il caffè freddo con panna, which is “espresso with cream” and features a frozen yet still very caffeinated treat that would send any Starbucks frappucino running for the hills. Delectable and effective this small cup was in putting the pep back in my step (let’s not forget I was running on zero sleep).

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Il Caffè Freddo con Panna

As we made our way back to meet my sister after school, Jose and I had the chance to wander into several churches that seemed to endlessly line the streets. It made sense, because we were in the center of Roman Catholicism, but what surprised me was how stunning each church was. Unique in their own way, each one outdid the one before, and I was overwhelmed by how much thought was put into the mosaic glass and murals that adorned the inside.

We met up with my sister and met some of her friends, who somehow let me lead them up Aventine Hill. Please note here that I knew none other than my sister at this point more than 24 hours, and they were letting me guide them to a place I had only heard about. Game on. We wound up the hill past the beautiful Giardino delgi Aranci, which had the best view of Rome I experienced. Feast your eyes.

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Rome, Italy

But that view (although very welcomed) was not the reason I led us up a breathless incline. I was walking toward the Knights of Malta Keyhole, located just on the other side of Santa Sabina, a church that dates back to 422AD. A dear friend of mine back at home had put this item on my to do list, because there was something magical to be viewed through the lens of the keyhole. We arrived, we peeked, and I won’t reveal what was seen. Below is the infamous keyhole with a blurred vision of what’s inside. I intentionally didn’t link anything here so that I wouldn’t ruin the surprise of witnessing it in person! Guess you’ll have to make the climb yourself. 😉

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Knights of Malta Keyhole

Happy to be going downhill, we wound our way down and stumbled upon the Roseto di Roma Capitale, which is a public garden that has it’s humbled roots (haha get it?) way back in 1931. With over 1,100 varieties of roses in bloom, this garden is a breath of colorful fresh air. I found out that many of the bushes have actually been gifts given from all around the world, and never before have I seen so many different types and shapes of such a beautiful flower.

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Roseto di Roma Capitale

As if this area couldn’t get any better, right across the street lie the daunting Circo Massimo. Actual chariot races took place here in ancient Roman times. It was the first and largest stadium, and could accommodate 150,000 spectators. Just for the record, that’s larger than ANY football stadium in America (the largest is Michigan Stadium at 107,000 – also my beloved Kyle Field comes in 4th place in terms of capacity at 102,000).

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Circo Massimo

Our appetites had greatly increased between all the climbing and marveling, so we set out to eat. Hopping on the train, we made our way back to Trastevere, an off-the-beaten-path neighborhood in Rome. Definitely worth passing through, this area is classic with ancient buildings and cobblestone streets. I had gotten a recommendation from a flight attendant to try a restaurant called Dar Poeta, which was famous for their wood-oven pizzas.

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Dar Poeta

Side note: if you learn nothing else from me, learn how valuable it is to take recommendations from your flight attendants in terms of things to do and see, because they’ve been where you’re going a billion times! I’ve tested the theory nonstop since I started working, and I haven’t been led astray once.

This time was no exception. Splitting a pizza with toppings like zucchini and pepperoni, along with a calzone filled with soft cheese and salami, I was in heaven. Ben Wyatt would have killed for a calzone this good. We filled our bellies with more delicious carbs and laughed the time away, watching as they tossed and baked pizzas nonstop from the time we arrived until after we left. This, my friends is a worthy dining experience on all fronts.

Dar Poeta

Afterwards, we began a tradition that became a must every day of the trip; eating Italian gelato. My first flavor was pistachio, and I was hooked. Sold along the street in pop-up shops, just like your New York pizza and Belgium waffle, gelato was accessible everywhere you went. Calories don’t count on vacation right?

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Italian Gelato

After what seemed like a decade of a day (in the best way), I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

 


Day 2 [Rome]

The sun rose and gently roused me from my coma-like slumber. I peeked my eyes open to this view… Ah, I can’t believe I’m really here.

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Airbnb in Rome

Up that day was a trip to Vatican City, where Jose and I joined my sister and her classmates on a walking tour through the Vatican Museum. Now I am extremely fond of museums, but I usually classify them as a solo activity. This is because I have the tendency to completely get lost in art, and end up spending the majority of the day trying to soak everything in. I was grateful to take advantage of hijacking this study abroad group’s guided tour, because if I had gone in alone, I’m certain I would’ve never resurfaced.

The Vatican Museums host art pieces that have been collected by popes throughout the centuries, and serves as one of the largest collections of Renaissance art in the world. Because most of the art was influenced by Catholicism and Christianity I have grown learning, I found an even further connection with the work.

One of the first pieces we encountered was The Transfiguration (pictured below), which was the last painting done by Raphael in his lifetime. Not only is this image generally recognizable by most, but it depicts such an incredibly powerful moment in history in such a monumental way. The painting itself stands at about 13 feet, looking even more daunting in person because of it’s size. Little did I know, we were just getting started.

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The Transfiguration by Raphael

After leaving the first of the museums, we entered a courtyard called Cortile del Belvedere. This is where I encountered the Death Star. Not really, although it would have been a humorous juxtaposition to all of the Renaissance masterpieces lying around. Really what’s pictured here is the Sfera con Sfera (Sphere within a Sphere) by Arnaldo Pomodoro. I was drawn initially by my Star Wars comparison, but found myself unable to take my eyes off of it. Apparently there are others made just like it scattered around the world, but it felt right at home as a centerpiece in this courtyard. Made entirely out of bronze, this sculpture is said to possibly be made as a concavity concept of earth, where the celestial lies within. The other interpretation is that it is earth breaking out of the ptolemaic view of the heavens, in which the celestial lies all around and the earth lies in center. Either way, I could have stared at it for days.

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Sfera con Sfera by Arnaldo Pomodoro

The next sculpture pictured was actually found buried in a vineyard in Rome. Named Laocoön and His Sons, this piece is considered one of the greatest works of Greek sculpture in the Hellenistic Period. It depicts Laocoön, a Trojan priest, and his two sons being attacked by serpents sent by the gods. Although the story and reasoning has fluctuated between writers, this death took place during the Trojan War, and more than likely had something to do with his interference with the infamous Trojan horse. The world may never know.

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Laocoön and His Sons

Up next we got to see The Belvedere Torso, which may not seem like much, but hosted great significance in it’s brokenness. As you can see, it’s merely a fragmented marble statue of the male torso. While who the man is remains a mystery, what really sets this piece apart is it’s influence on Renaissance, Mannerist and Baroque artists. Set apart from this crowd of artists are the familiar Michelangelo and Raphael. The piece was actually later nicknamed “The School of Michelangelo,” for the impact it made on his life and work.

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The Belvedere Torso

In the same chamber stood tall Heracles, or Hercules as we call him, standing tall and bronze. This sculpture was also found buried near Campo de’ Fiori in 1864, but this one seemed concealed with intention. It was laying horizontally in a trench covered in a slab that had F C S (Fulgur Conditum Summanium) carved into it. This indicated that the sculpture had been struck by lightening, which by Roman custom required traditional burial with the remains of a lamb. It is believed that the statue had to be buried because Zeus kept throwing bolts at it, because he was unhappy with the structure.

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Heracles

Next was the second most fascinating part of the museum (number one to be obviously revealed later), the Raphael Rooms. Called the Papal Apartments, these paintings located all over the walls in the Palace of the Vatican have great significance in their meaning. They are famous for their frescoes (a mural style of painting executed on wet plaster), and although this artwork covered the walls of several rooms, there was one specifically that held my gaze.

The Stanza della Segnatura (Room of the Signatura) was the first of these frescoes created by Raphael. The following pieces covered the walls of the pope’s library, and harmonize the different melodies of worldly and spiritual wisdom. Each wall represents something different, whether that be theology, philosophy, law or the poetic arts.

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Disputation of the Holy Sacrement by Raphael (Theology)

A depiction of the church including both heaven and earth. It shows the faces of infamous pope’s throughout time.

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The Parnassus by Raphael (Poetic Arts)

The dwelling place of Apollo, the Muses, and the home of poetry. The figures are also surrounded by poets from antiquity and Raphael‘s time.

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The Cardinal Virtues by Raphael (Law)

The three segments of this piece represent fortitude, prudence, and temperance.

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The School of Athens by Raphael (Philosophy)

Here lies the most famous piece (and my personal favorite) of Raphael‘s work. It depicts the degrees of knowledge or truth acquired through reason. I found it fascinating in my research to also discover that the fresco‘s position across from the Disputa aforementioned, along with the direction the philosopher is walking, suggest interpretation that the whole room represents the movement from classical philosophy to true religion or Christianity. Another fascinating aspect of this fresco is that famous faces of philosopher’s are intertwined with artists, which was believed to be a nudge by Raphael in depicting artists just as revolutionary as philosophers in frame of thought. One more thing I have to add, was that if you look at the bottom left side of he image, you see a man in a purple robe that looks aggravated. Of course Raphael could not have included the faces of artists without including the face of Michelangelo… But funny enough, the two did not get along at all. Think of Raphael as the little (and quickly rising to popularity) brother of Michelangelo. At the time of the Papal Apartments commission, Michelangelo was working on the Sistine Chapel. To slap the back of Michelangelo‘s hand here, Raphael depicted him in his own style, which included exaggerated physical features and more robust stature. In this way, he truly mocked Michelangelo‘s form, contrasting it with his own softer and more poetic aesthetic.

As you can tell, the Papal Apartments had absolutely captivated me. But in no way did they prepare me for what my eyes saw soon after, the Sistine Chapel. Located in the palace in which the Pope resides, this space is most famously used as the site of the Papal conclave, where the new pope is selected. A true masterpiece lies on the ceiling and walls of this magnificent room, which Michelangelo is most acclaimed for. The frescoes that adorn all around took him 4 years to finish. He spent his days laying on his back painting, and his nights sleeping in the rest quarters they made on the lifts. Although we were not allowed to take photographs, I know that they would have been of disservice, because nothing could have done that masterpiece justice. My mouth gaped open in awe at the sight of it. It was pointed out that you can literally see the growth of Michelangelo‘s technique as you go through the work as he completed it, where it started with gaunt and dis-proportioned figures, it turned into magical peoples that seemed to dangle quite literally off of the ceiling. Many famous depictions of Biblical scenes make up much of the work, and my favorite would be The Creation of Adam. Both my sister and I bought prints of the focal point of this piece, the touch between God the Creator and Adam. What a true joy is was to be in the presence of such beautiful magnificence.

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The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo

The day ended wonderfully with a group dinner at Grazie and Graziella. Here I experienced my first true Italian-style meal. Of course, bottles upon bottles of delicious red wine (Castello di Torre in Pietra Merlot 2014 – to be exact) were scattered around the table, and my glass was kept full along with my acqua frizzante (I really didn’t stray from sparkling water the whole trip, I felt so spoiled!). Almost immediately multiple appetizers were brought out and placed in front of us – everything from bruschetta to antipasto, and nothing less than delectable. We selected our own pastas, and each came out looking better than the next. We rounded off the meal with the best tiramisu I have ever had in my entire life. I was on cloud nine.

Grazie and Graziella

Side note: I never felt stuffed or heavy after these ginormous meals, and I attribute it to the freshness and quality of all the ingredients in the Italian food. You also notice that there aren’t many overweight people in Italy, yet another nod to the great food with better ingredients.

Later in the evening we made our way to the Fontana di Trevi. Talk about living in a Lizzie McGuire dream, all I needed was an identical pop star twin and an Italian man. Admittedly, fragola e limone (strawberry and lemon) gelato were welcome substitutes. It was here that I got to sit next to my dear sister and toss a coin into the fountain, making the promise to return.

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Fontana di Trevi
My little sister/best friend/confidant Rachel!

 


Day 3 [Rome]

The next morning,  Jose and I allowed ourselves the chance to (finally) sleep in, before the whirlwind of a day that was in store. To help ourselves make it to all corners of the magnificent city, we rented bikes from a bike shop in Trastevere. We then set off, back to my beloved Fontana di Trevi, to do something most of you will regard as shameful. Let me just say, that I ADORE Italian food, especially straight from the source. But on that third day, I needed a break from the usual, because I’m so used to eating variety all the time. So yes, you can hate me, but I ventured into McDonald’s. Interestingly enough, you order off a touch screen here. While they had a few items different than in the States (like gelato and thin fries), I kept it real with a nuggets meal. Funny enough, their adult portion was 6 pieces instead of 10, and their large drink was the size of our medium. We were Pawnee citizens dining in Eagleton, if you get the Parks and Rec reference. But I digress, I very much enjoyed snacking on the steps in front of the Fontana di Trevi and taking in the (tourist invested) scenery.

McDonald’s

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Fontana di Trevi

We then set off toward The Spanish Steps, a monumental stairway that was built from 1723-1725 to connect the Bourbon Spanish Embassy to Trinità dei Monti church. Located at the bottom of the steps is Piazza di Spagna, full of nice shops and cafes, and the location for my daily gelato venture. Yum, it never gets old!

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Italian Gelato

Shortly afterwards, at my own humor I became the Blair Waldorf of Rome, enjoying gelato on The Spanish Steps, similarly to her yogurt on the Met steps (but better).

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The Spanish Steps

I find it important to include here that in Italy, often times the road is synonymous with the sidewalk. All is fair in the pursuit of getting where you’re going. So riding our bikes very carefully, we made our way to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Among many in the world, these tombs represent the reverence held for the many soldiers that have passed away with their remains being unidentified. They are often represented by one tomb which often holds the remains of a single soldier. In Italy, this structure is located in Piazza Venezia, and is absolutely breathtaking. Standing robust and tall against the sky, I read it and the flags waving in front as a symbol of pride for those who committed their lives in service of their country.

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Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Next we pedaled to the most distinctive monument of all, the Colosseum. Built of concrete and sand, this Wonder of the World is the largest amphitheater ever to exist. Apparently this structure could hold up to 80,000 people! Most famous for its gladiatorial contests, this place now serves as one of Rome‘s most popular tourist attractions. The partial ruin has been caused over time by earthquakes and stone robbers, but it still remains iconic.

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Colosseum

Afterwards, we got a chance to ride around the outskirts of The Roman Forum. For centuries, the space was the center of Roman life. Within lies the heart of ancient Rome. Although I didn’t get a chance to truly explore the area, it’s definitely on my to do list (remember the coin I tossed in the Trevi is bringing me back!).

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The Roman Forum

It was in returning the bikes that I said farewell to my new friend Jose, and I set off to meet my sister and a couple of friends we had convinced to go on the next adventure with us. We rushed to the metro (literally ran) to make it to our departing train on time. To my fellow New Yorkers, I will admit that riding the metro during rush hour was more jam-packed than almost any subway I’ve been on. Below, the evidence.

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Everyone, meet Andrew! He really is always happy (even in crowded cars) and I’m just now remembering I owe him queso next time I’m in Texas!

Amidst our rushing, we were entirely too early for our departure. I admit it was my fault, because I assumed that I needed to treat a train ride like a flight, but I was wrong. We soon all began to get hungry, and kept our fingers crossed that there would be sustenance while we were in transit.

To our good fortune, there was! Carriage 5 had a cute little bar set up with sandwiches, snacks, and of course wine. We enjoyed all of the above in great plenty. As we took in the quickly escaping landscapes and traveled through delirium from exhaustion, we finally made our way to the islands of Venice.

Arriving close to midnight, we hopped on a water taxi around the islands to our hostel. The walk was silent and dark, not allowing us much ability to see, so we didn’t know what to make of this new place. Thankfully we made it soon to our beds, and I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

 


Day 4 [Venice]

Now let me just start off by saying, I was absolutely enthralled for a chance to visit Venice. It has topped my bucket list for as long as I can remember, and I couldn’t believe I was actually there. Quite honestly, when I woke up that morning I was secretly nervous that I would walk outside and be sorely disappointed. I figured that there was no way that the place I built up inside my head could be real.

We walked outside, or I should say, stepped into a magical place that in no way could possibly exist on this earth.

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Venice, Italy

We wound our way through the beautiful cobblestone streets, picking up espresso on the way. Venice is probably the most confusing place to try to navigate through, with its winding roads and bridges over the water. Thankfully out of the four of us, the beautiful Amanda had international phone service and was able to navigate.

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Kate, Andrew, Rachel and Amanda

We decided to go on a walking tour called “Venice in One Day.” It was a combination walking and boat tour all through the city, and is just long enough to be informative, but still give you plenty of time to still enjoy your day afterwards. I would absolutely plan on adding this tour to your travel plans, the link to the tour can be found here.

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Venice Waterfront
(My first view of the infamous gondolas!)

In this tour you have a live guide that leads you through the city, but thankfully they hand out headphones and speak into a mic, so you can hear them over the buzz. Our tour guide started out by telling us the history of the creation of Venice, which was extremely interesting. The islands that make up the city (118 of them total) were completely man made starting back in 5 A.D. after the fall of the Roman Empire. In order to escape the barbarians invading the northern territories, the Venetians escaped to nearby marshes. Of course, the marshes did not provide solid foundation for permanent living, so the people came up with a way to create the islands that we know today.

They started by driving wooden stakes into the sandy ground, and then putting wooden platforms across them to create a solid foundation. On top of that they began to construct the buildings and homes in the city. It’s incredible to think about the immensity of this process, because all supplies (including the wood) had to be brought over by boat, so the development took a very long time. The entire existence of Venice is without a doubt a phenomenon, and there is absolutely nothing else like it in the world. I couldn’t believe I was standing on earth made by the hands of people long ago.

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Columns of San Marco and San Teodoro at Piazza San Marco

We walked down the waterfront to Piazza San Marco, which is the principal square of the city, housing many of Venice‘s landmarks. The entrance is guarded by the columns of San Teodoro and San Marco, the patrons of VeniceSan Marco specifically is represented here as a winged lion, which is the symbol of the city and represented on their flag.

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Venetian Flag

Another aspect that I found fascinating about Venice, is that it was independent until Italy unified only about 150 years ago! They had their own governing body, language and way of life. While wandering through the city, you could sense an individuality that I had not yet felt in other parts of Italy, and I attribute that to their long history of being a self-governed state.

Directly behind the columned entrance to the square was Campanile di San Marco, the tallest tower in Venice. It was first constructed sometime in the 7th century, and was thought to have first been a lighthouse. Since then it has been rebuilt several times because of earthquakes, reaching its current look at around 1513. Atop this structure is a gold weather vain in the shape of the angel Gabriel. Daily the bell would ring 5 different times, signifying the beginning and end of the workday, midday, a summon to council members for a meeting, a session of the Senate, and lastly to announce executions.

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Campanile di San Marco

Next we came upon The Clock Tower, which faces the waters of the lagoon, and was built to show the wealth and glory of Venice to the world. It’s look has been altered many times since it’s initial construction in the 15th century. Most famously, it’s known for two bronzed sculptures nicknamed the “Moors,” which physically move to strike the hours on the bell on top. One is old and the other young, which depicts the passing of time. Although you can’t see the sculptures well in the following picture, notice the detail and magnificence of the clock tower itself.

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The Clock Tower of Venice

Lastly, we had the chance to walk inside Saint Mark’s Basilica, the patriarchal cathedral and most famous of the churches in Venice. The line to get in was extremely long, but thankfully our group got to skip to the front (another great reason to go on this tour!). I have always had a special appreciation for churches and cathedrals throughout the world, and I can hands down say that this one tops my list.

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Saint Mark’s Basilica

Long ago, Venetian merchants actually stole the relics of Saint Mark the evangelist from their original resting place in Egypt. The building’s structure is modeled after Constantine the Great’s Church of the Holy Apostles, with the floor plan in the shape of a Greek cross. Pictures of the outside of the basilica are stunning, but certainly don’t do it the justice it deserves. What really set Saint Mark’s apart was the magnificence of the inside. The ceiling is decorated entirely in mosaic, in which small glass pieces and gold leaf are individually attached to created an overall cohesive look. Of course pictures were not allowed, but I probably wouldn’t have had the focus to remember to take one. I cannot even describe to you how incredible it appeared, and how the figures on the ceiling seemed to glimmer with life.

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Saint Mark’s Basilica

Leaving the square, we crossed over the water and saw the Bridge of Sighs, another famous Venetian landmark. While some may attribute the name to the sighs of lovers as they romantically pass through riding gondolas below, the real origin is completely different. In the past, the bridge was the only connection between de Duke Palce and The New Prison. It is legend that prisoners would pass through this bridge look out the small square windows, sighing at their last sights of the outside world. Pretty gruesome in comparison to it’s other interpretation right?

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Bridge of Sighs

Side note: Take special notice of the gondolier on the right side of this image. On top of totally posing for this photo, you may see him later on.

We then were guided through many back streets, exploring many squares along the way. The communities were built around these squares just like a neighborhood, with everything you need (groceries, church, etc.) at each one. The squares also all originally had functional wells to draw water for the household, as well as served as a commonplace for the areas inhabitants.

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Piazza in Venice, Italy

The tour then broke for an hour lunch, in which I got the chance to try a Venetian delicacy. Nero di Seppie is a traditional dish which is most distinctive by its black sauce. It’s a pasta dish with cuttlefish (in the family of the squid), which seems ordinary enough. However, the sauce actually comes from the ink of the cuttlefish, giving it the black color. Although the dish was nothing extraordinary in taste, I can now say I’ve eaten squid ink!

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Nero di Seppie

After lunch, we returned to the waterfront to meet with the tour for a boat ride around the city. I definitely encourage you to at least take some sort of boat tour when you visit, because you are able to see Venice from the view of which is was created. Although many walkable roads exist now, the front doors of establishments and homes originally were all along the water. Being in a boat changes the perspective you see the city in, and helps you discover things you didn’t see before.

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Venice, Italy

I am happiest when I’m on water in general, but riding through the lagoons on this day made me blissful in ways unmatched. Crystal clear waters and sky, along with dear friends in tow, made time stand still as we traveled through the city.

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Venice, Italy

This portion of the tour was very informative in terms of what day-to-day life looked like for a Venetian, and we got to see up close the ambulance, police, trash and even hearse boats that keep the city running. When people pass away, they are all buried on an island just across the lagoon called Isola di San Michele.

Trash and Ambulance Boats

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Isola di San Michele

It was also here that we got to see the gondolas closely, taking in each individual’s details, compared only by their black exterior and striped gondolier. We were so excited to finally ride one once the sun set.

Once the tour was over, we spent the rest of the afternoon wandering through the eclectic shops that were scattered all throughout the narrow streets. Of course our gelato stop happened somewhere in here, and my sister and I posed for one of our quintessential splits pictures.

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Venice, Italy

When the night crept in and the moon finally rose in the sky, we found our way to the nearest gondola available for hire. In Venice, riding at nighttime costs more than during the day, but oh my goodness is it worth it. The romance and sweetness you dream about existing in this place comes to life. There were moments on our gondola ride that we just sat in silent awe of our surroundings. There was no noise, just the gentle paddling of our gondolier through the water.

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Gondola in Venice, Italy

Remember when I said to remember the gondolier from the Bridge of Sighs picture before? Well, oddly enough, the man from that photo actually ended up being ours! Such a small world. Right after we boarded the boat, my sister said and I quote, “I don’t know how to say this in Italian, but you are very good looking.”

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Gondola in Venice, Italy

We docked on the waterfront, and it took a lot of motivation for me to finally get off the gondola. I could’ve ridden for hours. Before we left, we got to snap this photo, one of the few of us as a group. These friends were becoming so dear to me, and were what made this trip unforgettable.

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Gondola in Venice, Italy


Day 5 [Florence]

This day started off normal: 3 shots of espresso and a chocolate croissant. Seriously, I could do this every day.

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Espresso in Venice, Italy

We quickly made our way back to the train via water taxi, and before we knew it, we were on our way to the beautiful city of Florence. Our first stop when we arrived was at a small cafe to enjoy lunch. Already I was starting to love this city as we walked along its cobblestone streets, eventually meeting up with the rest of their classmates from the study abroad.

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Florence, Italy

Luckily, I got to tag along for another guided tour through the Uffizi Gallery, which houses the largest collection of Renaissance art in the entire world. There’s something about art museums that just overwhelms me with joy, because of the way they are curated and cohesively blended memories and moments from hundreds of centuries. The Uffizi Gallery is definitely a spot you don’t want to skip, no matter how large your appreciation for art is. I’ll say it again – it ALWAYS is more beneficial to go on a guided tour. You won’t regret it.

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Uffizi Gallery

I first was impressed with Piero della Francesca‘s Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino, which is pictured below. This piece is one of the most famous from the Italian Renaissance, and depicts the couple in profile form. They appear to be very solemn, and their colorful attire contracts with the simplicity of the background. Most famously, their representation in profile was an inescapable choice. During a tournament, the Duke actually lost his right eye, which is why that side of his face could not be shown. It was also typical in profile portraits for the right side of the man’s face to be illustrated, which was another reason why this particular representation stands out. You can also see a notch in his nose, which was believed to be there to allow the Duke peripheral vision out of his good eye. This, however, is unlikely because plastic surgery was very rare and risky during this time period.

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Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino by Piero della Francesca

Up next is this stunning piece by Michelangelo, called Doni Tondo (or Holy Family). He created this simultaneously while constructing his sculpture of David (more about that later), and this painting is the only one of his that resides in Florence. During this time, a “tondo” was artwork commissioned for private clients, this one being for a wealthy banker Agnolo Doni. This piece artistically laid foundations for Mannerism, a style in which unnatural poses and colors became preference. This painting also lives in a wooden frame that Michelangelo carved himself, and is the same fresco style he used to paint the Sistine Chapel.

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Doni Tondo by Michelangelo

Right next to the Doni Tondo was the stunning and probably recognizable Birth of Venus by Botticelli. This is one of the most famous pieces of art in the world, and is a landmark Italian painting. In it, Venus is depicted effervescent and naked on a seashell, with her hair blown softly by the wind on the left. On the right, her handmaid Ora waits for the goddess so that she can dress her. It’s philosophical meaning is described as “the birth of love and the spiritual beauty as a driving force of life.” When you look at this huge masterpiece, you cannot help but feel calm. I was so moved by Botticelli‘s soft touch in his depiction of the human figure, it was truly stunning to experience.

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Birth of Venus by Botticelli

During a small break on our tour, we got to see the Duomo, probably the most distinctive landmark of Florence. The tall Gothic structure is named Florence’s Cathedral, and took nearly 2 centuries to be completed. You can visit to see the inside for free, and even climb to the top of the dome! I won’t lie to you though, I skipped this one, because the endless walking for the past week had started to slow me down. Definitely one for the bucket list though!

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The Duomo of Florence, seen from the Uffizi Gallery

Visiting again the beautiful Venus, we came upon a painting famous for it’s hidden meanings. Venus of Urbino by Titian was a gift from a Duke to his young wife. The painting displays obvious eroticism, which was intentional in illustrating to the woman her obligations to be fulfilled to her husband. Venus, the goddess of love, is chosen as the subject because of her undeniable beauty and appeal, and her color draws your eye to her figure.

The adorable dog that her leg leads to is a symbol of marriage fidelity, while the figures in the background are a depiction of motherhood. There was no mistake here of intention, and it’s sensuality was entirely intended to only be used for a private gift.

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Venus of Urbino by Titian

Up next was probably my favorite, although it strays far from my typical preferences. Artemisia Gentileschi was a very famous female painter, which was very rare during this time. She moved to Florence to escape a scandal of rape from a landscape painter Agostino Tassi. There is no documentation on this case, and today is often used to represent a symbol of violence endured by women throughout time. These experiences seem to have permeated the work Gentileschi created. In the pictured Judith and Holofernes, it shows Judith (a biblical heroin, representative of chastity), decapitating an Assyrian enemy after seducing him (but not going so far as to give it up). The piece was hidden away for it’s unsettling violence, and Gentileschi was only paid for her work after the client passed away, through mediation by her friend Galileo.

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Judith and Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi

I’ll go ahead and leave the museum with that painting’s taste in your mouth. The above pieces don’t even begin to skim the surface of what’s inside. We even got a beautiful view of the Ponte Vecchio from the long wall of windows in one of the halls. This famous bridge was the only one built across the Arno that the Germans did not destroy in World War II. The reason for it’s construction is a bit of a mystery, although there is obvious evidence that it was built as a form of defense. Since the 13th century however, this bridge has been home to merchant shops. It began as a collection of different merchandise, and then later it was decreed that only goldsmiths and jewelers may sell there. The incredibly famous jewelry stores are still there today, and this bridge serves as their home and a tourist destination.

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Ponte Vecchio

We entered back into the city’s streets, and Andrew and I peeled off in search for probably the most famous sculpture in the world. But before I get to that, indulge me as I share the delicious cannolo we experienced. It was filled half with ricotta and chocolate, and half with pistachio cream and crumbs – yum!

P.S. I recognize I said “cannolo” instead of the more commonly used “cannoli” – I dated this Italian guy awhile back and he corrected me saying that cannoli is a description of the dessert in plural. Who knew!?

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Cannolo from Don Nino

“When all was finished, it cannot be denied that this work has carried off the palm from all other statues, modern or ancient, Greek or Latin; no other artwork is equal to it in any respect, with such just proportion, beauty and excellence did Michelangelo finish it.” – Giorgio Vasari

These words are a perfect introduction to the sight we saw next. At this point, we had both taken in copious amounts of artwork within the past week. We thought we had seen it all. Just a few hours before we walked through a foyer filled to the brim with Renaissance sculptures. However, when we turned the corner and saw Michelangelo‘s David for the first time, my jaw dropped.

The sculpture stands at an incredible 14 feet tall, but it wasn’t the sheer magnitude that had me gaping. Commissioned for Florence’s Cathedral, this piece was intended to be created by 2 other artists beforehand, who walked away because they saw the block of marble as having too many imperfections. Good thing we had Michelangelo to carve some magic out of it.

It is here that David is depicted not in his usual victory pose standing on Goliath‘s head, but for the first time, before his battle. Michelangelo masterfully catches him in his moment of deep concentration, where his courage and strength is showcased indescribably. The slingshot he carries (his weapon in the battle) is very subtle, referencing that David‘s true strength was in his heart and not his tools.

Even the veins and stature of this structure could leave you dumbfounded for days. David is practically breathing, and Michelangelo‘s incredible talent brought him to life.

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Michelangelo‘s David

Side note: We were actually able to get into the Galleria dell’Accademia for only €1 because of a night special, so make sure to look into that if you’re looking to save a little!

Afterwards, we joined with the others for probably my favorite meal of the entire trip. With our large group taking up about 4 of the small restaurant’s tables, we were wined and dined until we could consume no more. It seemed that the owner and his family ran the restaurant, and he was the source of entertainment. Walking around he would taunt those who didn’t finish their food, and even drew on the table a plate when one was missing! The family seemed like enough reason to be drawn to this place, but somehow the food still out-shined them.

It was here that I got to taste bistecca alla fiorentina (Florentine steak). A delicacy for the region, this huge slab of perfectly cooked beef might have actually changed my life. I definitely recommend sharing it when you order, and make sure you haven’t eaten much before. While pictures won’t do it justice, they’ll do better than me trying to explain as my stomach is already grumbling in their memory.

Bistecca alla Fiorentina

That evening we went out in the city, starting at (oddly enough) an Irish pub called The Lion’s Fountain. The inside was adorned with every universities’ t-shirt and writing on the walls claiming Greek alliances and class years. While I wasn’t really into an American atmosphere while I was abroad, we still had a lot of fun! I met a group of fellow Americans that convinced me to join them as they continued their night’s ventures.

It was this marvelous group of people that led me to the sweetest smells my nose has ever known. Secret Bakery is probably the best (sort of) kept secret in all of Italy. While there is no specific address to locate this bakery’s back door, it’s definitely worth searching for. At around 2 in the morning, you can start to smell it’s sweet fragrances about a block away.

The concept is simple. When the door opens, you hand them a euro, and they’ll hand you a paper bag. What’s inside? You’ll never know before, but it’s really hard to be picky when you receive a fresh batch of Italian pastries after a night out. Do this. Go there. Love the miracle that it is.

Side note: Just found a possible address – Via del Canto Rivolto 50122!

Our group continued to Red Garter, which is apparently Italy‘s oldest American bar. Interesting. Anyways, we pushed through the dancing crowds to enjoy pitchers and Italian karaoke. Being the slightly less inhibited individuals we were at the time, we ended up singing “You’re the One that I Want” from Grease, to a crowd of people who didn’t speak English… But we didn’t care, because of the inhibition thing I mentioned before. The night was fun, meeting people that are from such close proximity to you in another country is pretty awesome. I won’t forget that night for a long time! I was back at the hotel at 4 am.


Day 6 [Florence]

I woke up with a knot in my throat, knowing it was the last full day in my beloved Italy. With a little bit of espresso however, things cleared right up and I was able to look past my nearing departure. I laughed when I saw a sign labeled “American Breakfast” with a picture of eggs, bacon, biscuits, etc. next to “Italian Breakfast” with a simple croissant and espresso. Man do we over-indulge in the States or what?

I was super excited to experience the leather market of Florence. Technically part of outside part of The San Lorenzo Market, the streets were filled with vendors featuring leather items of all sorts. Of course as you walked through, the merchants would harrass you to try to by from their booth, but New York taught me how to effortlessly say no (and no one can take that away from me). I did find the most perfect leather crossbody bag for only €30 though! It’s become my favorite, and it’s leather smell is enough to keep me from needing any perfume.

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The San Lorenzo Market / Leather Market

For lunch, we ventured into the indoor part of San Lorenzo called Mercato Centrale. The building is a two-story market filled with all kinds of food and plenty of seating to enjoy tasting all of the exciting options. On the ground floor, you’ll find all kinds of food vendors selling local olive oils, fruits, vegetables, meat, and almost anything you can imagine. The first floor is home to probably the most fantastic food court I’ve ever witnessed. Recently this spot has been renovated and reopened in 2014, with high ceilings and eclectic lunch options that are sure to be delicious. My friends and I found a spot where they fried everything they served, so it was the obvious winner. This is such a fun spot to explore the different cuisines Italy has to offer!

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The San Lorenzo Market / Mercato Centrale

We spent our time relaxing and enjoying the markets, before we got ready for our last venture in Florence. A Chianti Wine Tour was just what the doctor ordered. We loaded up on a mega bus, and took off down to our first winery.

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Chianti Region of Tuscany

Riseccoli was our first stop, a small and sweet winery that’s full of character. Honestly, this was my favorite one, because of the stunning scenery and absolutely delicious wine. I’m telling you, the small vineyards are where it’s at. I don’t think anyone walked out of there without buying a bottle.

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Riseccoli, a Winery in Tuscany

We were then driven to the larger and more acclaimed winery Santa Margherita. Now here is where I felt like a foodie, because I’ve actually had their pinot grigio several times. This vineyard‘s selections have made their way to the States, and although you can totally buy the aforementioned at any Kroger in my hometown, I still felt important for my little knowledge. Although it was cool getting to see a larger winery in motion, it just didn’t have the quality that the smaller one had. Nevertheless, we all had a fabulous time because wine was involved.

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Santa Margherita, a Winery in Tuscany

It was here that our trip finally wound down, and I finally remembered to snap a group shot with all of these fun loving Aggies.

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Santa Margherita, a Winery in Tuscany

I am so incredibly grateful that this beautiful sister of mine let me crash her Italy adventures, and so glad to have met and got to spend time with the others who were with her. I wish this trip never had to end, and I made sure to not miss a single drop of that wine (symbolically, but also because I don’t waste alcohol). It was the perfect and most serene ending to the week.



 

Thus ends the long account of what I consider to be the best trip I’ve ever taken in my life. It was full of seeing, tasting, doing and exploring new things, and I was surrounded by my best friend of a sister and so many other people I came to adore.

I’m pretty sure in a past life I was Italian. They drink coffee (or I should say espresso) like I do, drink wine as often as I wish I could, and value carbs in ways I only dream about. I will go there, again and again as many times as I can muster. Just be wary, because one of these times I may not come back. Arrivederci Italia!

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Rome, Italy

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