We got in Sunday afternoon, and crashed pretty much immediately. We both went back to work Monday, and it's been a bit of an adjustment. ;)
We had a fantastic trip, and great weather, apart from a couple of days of rain in Rome - no big deal, since we could easily make those "museum days."
Most relevant to the blog, I made my one yarn purchase here, at the Beatrice Galli Yarn shop. She's on a little street just off the Ponte Vecchio (Oltrarno). She was SUPER nice, and although I hadn't really planned to buy yarn, I did, after all, wander into her shop, which I had looked up in advance. I did good - only two balls of a pink and gray wool/cashmere blend. It is wonderfully thick and thin, and squashy. It wants to be a hat.
We made it to all of the artistically/architecturally significant churches. My favorites were: San Miniato, dating to the 9th century and located on a hill high above the city. It was very quiet and peaceful inside, so when I dropped a Euro coin into the offering box, it sounded almost like a door slamming. It was one of those places you walk into and are immediately impressed with a feeling of how spiritual it is. Santa Croce, also very spiritual, and lots less crowded than the Duomo, had beautiful frescoes by Giotto, and wonderful stained glass. San Marco was notable for its old monastery, which you could visit. Each cell had a fresco by Fra Angelico, all of which were remarkably well preserved - they could have been painted yesterday.
We also saw some fantastic art, including Michelangelo's David, and some of his unfinished (and therefore all the more haunting) sculptures at the Accademia. For art, though, the best museum in Florence is the Uffizi, which was originally built as offices for one of the Medicis. Two of Botticelli's most famous paintings are there - the Venus, and Primavera, both of which are absolute knockouts in person.
We had some good meals in Florence, too - lots of pizza, each different and delicious in its own way, as well as a trip to the Mercato Centrale, where some of the city's best bakers, butchers, greengrocers, and other food artisans are gathered under one roof. We put a lovely picnic lunch together there, including wild boar salame (a local specialty), and the best focaccia I had ever tasted. It was wonderfully olive-oily and had red pepper flakes mingled in with the herbs.
We had a day trip to Fiesole as well, a small town outside the city. There is an old Roman amphitheatre there, as well as a museum. It is still an active archeological dig, but you could still walk around most of it! From there, we walked down tiny, twisty streets to another town, San Domenico, where we had a glass of Pinot Grigio in a cafe before catching the bus back to town.
Florence was a wonderful city to just walk around in. It is beautiful and feels like a smaller town. I loved the way art and a sense of aesthetic harmony were woven into daily life. We went nearly everywhere on foot, and after a week, felt like we had lived there, we knew it so well. It was very romantic, exactly as I dreamed Italy would be.
Rome was a bit of a shock at first. Its main train station, the Termini, seems as big as an airport, and contains everything you might conceivably need, from last minute postcards, to newspapers, even a grocery store. This is definitely a big city. I had dubbed it "Los Angeles on the Tiber," but this isn't quite fair. The top sights here are breathtaking, to say the least. I was stunned that they actually let you wander around ruins (we saw the Colosseum, the Forum, the Palatine Hill, as well as took a day trip to Ostia Antica). Ostia was amazing - the buildings are remarkably intact, and you can easily imagine it as the bustling port city it was before the Tiber changed course. In the market, there are mosaics outside each shop, indicating what was sold there.
Some of the most significant, and spectacular, artifacts of ancient Rome are housed in the Musei Nazionale, which takes hours to go through. We had a great half a day there, checking out statues, mosaics that are amazingly intact, and even a whole room that was re-assembled inside the museum, with walls painted to look like a garden.
We took a bit of a break from the ancient sights to see the Galleria Doria Pamphilj - this is a private art collection, in a beautiful palazzo. The family still live there, but the rooms containing the collection are open to the public. The collection is impressive for its diversity, including religious subjects by Italian painters, portraits, and my favorites, landscapes by Claude Lorrain. The rooms, of course, are beautiful too, with fabric-covered walls, ornate furniture, and parquet floors that creak quietly under your feet.
My favorite sights (besides our room's luxurious bathtub - a rarity in affordable European hotels) were easily the Vatican Museums (includes the Sistine Chapel) and St. Peter's Basilica. There are no words to describe the incredible collection of art, the exquisite painting of the Sistine Chapel, nor the sheer awesomeness of St. Peter's. So many of the churches we saw still served their nearby communities, and in my favorite ones, you could still feel how the spirit of these communities filled them, and welcomed you in too. St. Peter's, however, is meant to be a church for the world, and you feel that as soon as you walk in the doors. The largeness of it is overwhelming, but in a good way.
Michelangelo's Pieta is there, and we got as close as possible to it (it is behind bulletproof glass now because some maniac broke off part of it with a hammer; they were able to repair it with a piece of marble from an unseen part of the statue, but it obviously has to be protected). There is an unfinished one in the Accademia in Florence, too. The finished Pieta is, obviously, spectacular, but in a way, I preferred the unfinished one. You could get closer to it, and the fact that the figures aren't entirely revealed drew me in and gave the piece a certain emotional resonance.
In a sad, yet beautiful experience, we were also able to tour the tombs of the Popes, and saw John Paul the IIs, where a number of people were gathered, praying, crying (self included), or simply gazing in silence. Also there is the tomb of St. Peter, which us under the Papal Altar in the church itself. You can kind of see it from the church, but in the tombs, you can see right into it. Again, something totally indescribable - and amazing to think that the altar was built right above his grave, so many years later.
Our best meal of the trip was in Rome. A neighborhood called the Trastevere is home to many of Rome's most authentic restaurants. It has a lively, bohemian spirit, and it was a fun place to wander and people-watch. We had our quintessential Roman meal there, featuring one of the city's signature dishes: roast chicken and potatoes. This simple sounding dish was actually exquisite: the light and crispy skin of the chicken, the incredibly tender, moist meat, all infused with the flavors of rosemary and fennel. The potatoes were roasted as well, and so soft they were like butter. Fabulous. We paired this with a Barolo that was a perfect complement to the food. We followed it up with a cheese plate and a rich, decadent dessert wine from the wine bar next door. When I dreamed of going to Italy, this was what it tasted like.
The last days of our trip were on the Amalfi coast, which is dotted with cliffside towns along the Mediterranean Sea. We stayed in Praiano, which is one of the smaller and higher towns. It is beautiful and very quiet. Tourists do stay here, but many venture out to other towns, so it felt almost like we had Praiano to ourselves. The locals were the friendliest, kindest people we had met so far.
Relieved from itineraries, we found ourselves in a comfortable routine of breakfast, morning hikes or swims, late lunch with the house white (always light, crisp and citrusy), usually followed by a nap. Since dinner was on the later side, we hung out on our balcony before heading down to the cafe for an aperitif, and then to dinner. Being a seaside town, local seafood was plentiful, and the local wines were both delicious and a stunningly good value. After two days of this, I said to DH that we could easily retire here. :)
So now we are back, with our best memories of Italy, and our full endorsement for you to go there too, whether it is your first time, or your sixth.