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Lessons of Italy

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Written by Diane Webster.

Italy is a great place to discover and learn – about culture, history, food and yourself.

Our first stop in Italy was Rome. On the way to our hotel, the Excelsior, our taxi driver informed us that we were staying on a “very important” street. When we arrived, I understood what he meant. The hotel is stunning, with a spectacular lobby and a gorgeous, spacious room. Outside, we were in an area of exclusive shops and restaurants that have been frequented by many famous people – like Harry’s bar, a Hemingway favorite, which was right across the street. Fashionable shops contained creations of famed designers from all over the world. There were the latest shoes, handbags, gowns – oh my! Everywhere a feast for the eyes and senses. Yes, we were definitely on an important street – and a great location.

It’s a delightful paradox that a place that embraces all things new in fashion is so steeped in history. In Rome you walk through history – even if you’re not looking for it. It’s easy to imagine the fall of Caesar as you are witnessing the very place where that fateful Ides of March event took place. My husband, Bob, was particularly interested in the Colosseum – from an engineering standpoint as well as a historical one. It’s no wonder the Colosseum is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the world. Standing in it, you truly get a sense of the horrors and luxuries that once existed there. A short bus ride from the Colosseum is the Vatican and its wealth of spiritual and artistic treasures. Rome is so diverse and exciting it was hard to leave, but we had our train ticket to Florence, so to the station we went.

At our next hotel, The Grand Hotel, we had a beautiful, ornately decorated room that opened to a view of the Arno River. It was a dream. Once an 18 th century palace, our hotel was a few steps away from the lovely Church of San Salvatore in Ognissani. Much of the church was built by friars in the 16th century, but parts date back to 1231. We found Italy to be like this – we would see an interesting looking place and then try to find out as much as we could about it – we were usually delighted that we stumbled onto a treasure. But, in Florence, there is no shortage of famous treasures.

The Duomo tower and Battistero, is almost beyond description – how did they do it? They had no computers, no calculators, no power tools! It’s a technological marvel – not to mention an artistic one. Art and Florence certainly go hand in hand.

We had a prearranged tour of the Galleria Dell’Accademi. There was a 2 hour wait to get tickets, but thanks to my experienced travel agent, we were inside in 15 minutes! Here you’ll see several sculptures by Michelangelo, including the famous David. We were also treated to an added bonus – a special exhibit (ending that day) of rare and beautiful musical instruments through the centuries. We loved this museum – it has wonderful artifacts, but it’s not so large that it’s overwhelming. From the Galleria, you can stroll or taxi to the Palazzo della Signoria and see more great architecture and another sculpture of David. This David, a copy of the original, stands outside at the exact spot where the original stood for 300 years.

We were also intrigued by the Medici family and their old and new palaces. Joy’s recommended tour of the palace and the secret itinerary’s tour was a pleasure. There’s something delightful about peeking into the hidden chambers the very public Cosimo de’Medici and those of his son, the shy and eclectic prince.

As with Rome, we felt there was still much to do and see in Florence, but we were also looking forward to our last destination in Italy.

When we got off the train station in Venice we could see our hotel across the canal. Had I not been a chronic overpacker we would have walked to the hotel, but our luggage was too much to handle over the steps of a bridge, so we water taxied our bags to the lovely and intriguing city of Venice. After we settled in, we walked from our hotel on the canal to the famous Rialto Bridge and San Marco Square daily. One morning we took a private taxi to the island of Murano. Watch out if you make this voyage. We were greeted on the dock by our personal, charming escort, but the hand made glass treasures he will lead you to will have you throwing your wallet (and next few paychecks) his way. Whatever you do, leave the deed to your home at home!

The famous San Marco square, and Doge palace and Basilica are spectacular! We went on a self guided tour of the Doge Palace including the dungeons where Casanova was once a resident. We paid a small fee to enter the Galleria of Basilica de San Marco – this may be the best deal in Italy. Besides being an interesting museum, it’s on a high floor that overlooks the Basillica and gives you a wonderful view of the mosaics that cover the entire church. The Basilica is called “the golden church” because of the gilded Byzantine tile mosaics which were installed over a period of 7 centuries. You can also walk out on the roof for a bird’s eye view of San Marco square below – that alone was worth the price of admission!

Throughout Italy, we found the food to be delicious. We quickly became addicted to the wonderful olives they serve everywhere. We loved to go to one of the lovely café’s in the piazzas and sit outside, order a drink, olives and crackers and enjoy a whole new level of people watching. No wonder Hemmingway was so inspired! As for the food itself, the different regions offer different versions, so you are never at a loss for trying something new. In Italy it’s possible to have pasta every night and not have the same thing twice – I know because I did it – and I’m a vegetarian!! Imagine the possibilities if you’re not! Everything we ate in Italy was delicious, but I would be remiss if I didn’t give tribute to possibly the best food in the world at Il Margutta in Rome. Joy and Tom recommended this a vegetarian restaurant and, to this day, the very thought of it recalls the dreamy flavors. I confess, when we found out that we’d be returning to Rome in the spring, my first thought wasn’t “Great – we can go to the Colosseum again” it was “Great – we can go back to Il Margutta!” – Sorry Nero.

There are many lessons to learn by traveling, one important one is that you need a good travel advisor. This was our dream trip, and with the help of Joy and Tom it became a reality. They prearranged our hotels, museum tour, trains; they gave us recommendations for sites and restaurants, and advice on when and how to do things. Planning a trip should be a relaxing and exciting time, not one wrought with worry and hours of research. My advice is get advice from the experts – people who have been there and done that. It’ll end up saving you a lot of money and time, and you’ll enjoy your trip so much more.

This was our first taste of Italy and we loved it. We loved the people, the food, the shopping, the history, and the sights. We just scratched the surface and now we can’t wait to go back. After all, we still have much to learn.

Diane Webster About the Author: Diane, Classic Travel’s President Joy Thrun’s sister, retired from the State of Michigan where she worked in the area of information technology and served on the original e-Michigan team that launched the Michigan.gov website. Travel is a family passion and, like her parents and siblings, Diane has delighted in traveling the world. She has enjoyed Hawaii, Alaska, and many destinations throughout the US, Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. She has also had the pleasure of traveling to China, Japan, France, Spain, Italy, England, Monaco, and Malta.