I’ll start part II of our adventures in Italy by expressing my gratitude to my dad and brother for doing all the driving on the trip. Our 9-passenger rental van fit the six of us and all of our luggage comfortably; however, the van itself hardly fit comfortably in the Italian cities. Most vehicles in Italy can safely be described as compacts and a full-size van might as well be a bus on those roads. Combine that with some, occasionally, subpar navigating by the four backseat drivers and it is easy to see that no one was envious of the Shanahan chauffeurs. We had a few close calls, but nothing we can’t laugh at now, and thanks to them we saw a lot of Italy in a short time.
Getting our bearings
We arrived in Florence in the late afternoon and settled into our new place before heading to dinner. After finding our first choice for dinner booked up, we wandered toward the river. Before reaching the bridge, we walked through the Piazza Santa Trinita. My dad, who spent a semester in Florence while in college, recognized it immediately. A large column, topped with a statue defines the square. And if we had been visiting the square just a few years (or decades) earlier, we would have found my dad and family-friend Robert amongst the groups of friends sitting and drinking at the base of the column.
From there, we crossed the Ponte Santa Trinita which offers a great view of the Florence’s famous Ponte Vecchia bridge. After a few quick pictures, we continued wandering until we found somewhere to eat. We had a great meal which even included local musicians playing in the square outside. Next, my dad suggested heading to Piazzale Michelangelo. In addition to being another popular place to hang out and enjoy some wine, Piazzale Michelangelo offers the best view in the city. The sun had set by the time we arrived at the top, providing a gorgeous view of the Florence skyline by night.
The word Duomo in Italian refers to any structures originally designed to be cathedrals. Duomo’s can be found throughout Italy, but the Florence Cathedral is one of the largest. Construction finished in 1436, after 140 years, and included the largest dome in the world. Even today, the dome remains the largest brick dome ever constructed. Additionally, they allow visitors to ascend the 436 steps to the top of the dome. Despite some mild hangovers, we laced up our shoes, downed a couple of croissants and grabbed our tickets for the 9 am trip to the top.
I highly recommend climbing the dome, unless you have extreme claustrophobia or fear of heights. The initial section takes you up the spiral staircase that winds through the church wall. After a dizzying number of spirals, we arrived at the base of the dome. From there, a path wraps around the interior of the dome, allowing for a good view of the dome’s frescoes. Then, on to more stairs before reaching the top and stepping outside to get a 360º view of Florence. We spent a good while at the top, taking and the view (and catching our breath).
Florence is well known for its leather goods and just about all of us found something to take home. We arrived at the Mercato di San Lorenzo and lost ourselves in the leather. For the first time this trip, Stef and I could send some things back home, so we took advantage. We both needed an upgrade in the money management department, so we wheeled-and-dealed our way into a new wallet for each of us and a new purse for Stef. This trip also took its toll on Stef’s leather sandals from our honeymoon in Greece, so she found a suitable replacement. My mom picked up a nice purse, my dad a belt, and Brent and Bri went big with new leather jackets.
Hungry from all the bargains, we popped into the Mercato Centrale Firenze. The lower floor is more of a typical market, with most stalls selling different varieties of foods. Upstairs, however, lives a vibrant food court. The court includes a wide variety of cuisines and even offers alcoholic beverages. Finding a seat, especially for a larger group can be difficult. My parents, Stef and I ended up opting for some traditional Italian downstairs and Brent and Bri braved the crowds for some seafood and truffle gnocchi.
David and Ponte Vecchio
Just like the Colosseum in Rome, having pre-bought tickets to Galleria dell’Accademia is a must. We walked past a long queue and straight into the gallery. Galleria dell’Accademia houses many great Renaissance artworks, but Michaelangelo’s David draws the largest crowd. It took Michaelango over two years to complete the massive, marble statue depicting David prior to his battle with Goliath. The statue was unveiled in 1504 in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria where it remained until moved to the Galleria for preservation in 1873.
After the Galleria, we walked to the best-known bridge in Florence, the Ponte Vecchio. Shops on bridges were common in medieval times, but the Ponte Vecchio is the only remaining bridge in Florence still lined with shops. Originally, butchers inhabited the shops but today you’ll find primarily jewelry stores. I tried to convince Stef to buy a lovely brooch but she was, strangely, not interested.
Final Night in Florence
Our last stop in Florence was meant to be our first stop. We returned to Fattoria Rossi Firenze, our planned dinner stop on night one, this time with a reservation. The restaurant serves primarily meats and cheeses, all sourced from their own local farm. It holds 20 people, at most, but somehow the family sitting next to us lived in Highlands Ranch, just minutes from where my parents live. It really can be a small world sometimes. Our server made us feel like we were members of his family and the food was beyond delicious.
Bri, my sister-in-law, coincidentally had a friend who was studying fashion in Florence. Fortunately, she had time to meet up with us and took us to two of her favorite spots to have a drink in Florence. Before we knew it, we had been talking for several hours and downed more than a few cocktails. We could have stayed out all night but everyone had to be up early so we called it a night.
We had two goals on the road between Florence and Venice. One: find a winery. Two: drink some wine. We kept our eye on Google Maps throughout the trip and finally found one that seemed not too far off course. Maps did not mention that the road was better suited for a Ferrari than our van, but after a few tight turns, we arrived at Vignalta Winery. We learned that the surrounding hills each had different soils, creating different wines from the same grape. After sampling most of the selection, we made a few purchases and headed off to Venice.
We definitely never dreamed we would be going to Venice, when we started our trip. Thanks to my parents, we not only went, we stayed right in the city! Stef and I had it easy navigating the endless stairs and bridges with just our backpacks, but it can be quite difficult to get around with regular, rolling suitcases. But once settled, there is no better way to experience the unique beauty of Venice.
Venice consists of 118 islands and no trip to Venice is complete without floating through the canals on a gondola. Hundreds of years ago, as many as ten thousand gondolas navigated the canals of Venice. Today, motorized boats dominate but a few hundred gondolas operate, primarily to cater to tourists. Fortunately for us, gondolas hold up to six people, allowing our whole family to experience it together.
We embarked from one of the larger canals, essentially the highways of Venice. Our gondolier smoothly navigated the busier waters, while we took in the sights and sounds. Slowly, we made our way to a smaller canal. While the only traffic came from other gondolas, the route seemed very popular and we essentially joined a long chain of tourists. Of course, we were in no rush so the slow pace was nice and allowed us to enjoy every moment as we floated between the buildings and under the bridges.
After our gondola ride, we headed to St. Mark’s Square. Every side of the square offers something different to see, but the main attraction is the elaborately decorated St. Mark’s Basilica. Adjacent to the basilica sits Doge’s Palace, now a museum which previously housed the political leaders of Venice. The structure, designed in the gothic style, is impressive on its own but the attention to detail inside was the most amazing aspect of the palace.
Every room in Doge’s Palace is a piece of art. Most rooms tell their own story through massive religious paintings on the walls and ceilings. Accenting the paintings, sculptures and moldings (often gold) decorate every remaining inch. Photographing it properly would require a 360º camera, but we tried our best to capture what we could. Additionally, the museum added a room of medieval weaponry. It included swords, daggers, shields, bows, arrows, and suits of armor all arranged artistically (as we had come to expect). The palace should definitely not be missed when visiting Venice.
Rialto Bridge and the Venetian Ghetto
We made our way away from St. Mark’s Square and toward Venice’s Rialto Bridge. The Rialto is the oldest bridge over the Grand Canal. Walking down the middle of the bridge leads through an assortment of jewelry and souvenir stores, much like the Ponte Vecchio. However, the bridge also offers paths down the sides which provide amazing views of Venice and the busy Grand Canal.
After snapping more than a few pictures of the iconic bridge, we continued on toward the Venetian Ghetto. Of course, we needed some fuel for the journey so we made a quick stop to grab some smoothies (complete with alcohol). For almost 300 years, starting in 1516, Venice forced its Jewish population to live in a segregated part of the city. This area still remains, making it the oldest ghetto in the world, and continues to be the cultural center for Jewish life in Venice.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa
We left Venice in our rearview mirror and headed toward Civitavecchia. Fortunately, the city of Pisa sat directly on our route and made for a perfect place to stop and stretch our legs. Pisa seemed like a nice little town but we, of course, stopped primarily to see the Tower of Pisa. The foundation below the tower began to give way during its construction in the 12th century, causing the tower to begin tilting to one side. The tower continued to slowly lean further and further until it eventually became a safety hazard.
Thanks to some restoration in the 1990’s, the tower now safely leans at an angle of about 4 degrees. This doesn’t sound like much but with a tower of that height, it is a significant amount. We did not go to the top, but today it is possible to do if you wish. We spent our time taking the obligatory cheesy, “I’m holding up the tower,” tourist pictures, except for Brent who got creative and decided to kick the tower back to vertical again.
Circling into Civitachecchia
Finding our way to Civitachecchia was just as hard as spelling it (and I won’t even attempt to pronounce it). I’ll attribute our little detour to a combination of confusion between Google Maps and the signs posted along the road. One wrong turn led to another and before we knew it, we had spent about an hour figuring out how to get back to where we went wrong in the first place. Fortunately, Google Maps tracked our every move, so to the right I have provided a map of how not to get from Pisa to Civitachecchia.
We chose to stay in Civitachecchia to see somewhere new, but also for its proximity to Rome’s airport. Civitavecchia is mainly a landing point for many cruise lines and we saw numerous ships docked just outside our window. The city seemed nice, but it was bittersweet for everyone as we would be parting ways the next day. We had a great final dinner, then walked and talked briefly before calling it a night.
We were so grateful everyone could make this trip work and take the time to come visit us. Generally, Stef and I are very proud of sticking to our budget for this trip so we feel extra thankful when we get spoiled by family. Everywhere we went, everywhere we stayed, every meal we ate and every drink we drank (of which there were many) were made possible thanks to my mom, dad, brother, and sister-in-law. The trip just flew by and it was sad to say goodbye. Fortunately, being together allowed us to finalize our (American) Thanksgiving plans. We will be seeing everyone again in San Diego when Stef and I make our return to the States.