Category: Italy

What’s 2,770 years to an Eternal City?

One of the world’s most enduring cities is again marking its long and astonishing history.

Rome, the wonderful Eternal City on the Tiber, is said to have been founded in April 753 amid seven hills.

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But, the anniversary is more than just a reason for the Romans to party: Some historians revere the date as the birthday of Western Civilization itself.

For example, we recently saw this explanation about why Rome is so special:

Rome was for hundreds of years the captal of the largest empire Europe has ever seen, stretching from Portugal to Iraq. It was by far the largest city on earth at this time, with piped water, apartment blocks and flushing toilets. Many buildings from that time still stand. Rome was an early centre for the Christian religion and there are jaw-droppingly famous artworks around Rome sponsored by the Church.

To us, that seems to sell Rome short: overlooking the fact that modern English owes its origins to Latin, as do legal and medical terminology and today’s military organisation is based to an extent on the roman army.

And, it is just a gorgeous city, with beauty, grandeur and majesty at almost every turn.

Natale di Rome festival

 On the anniversary each year, citizens and visitors step back in time to mark Rome’s birthday  – staging a festival known as the Natale di Roma.
The city’s streets become a stage for troupes of actors dressed as denizens of the ancient city as they celebrate the birth of the Eternal City.
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Photo courtesy Pexels

Pompeii: extraordinary and unforgettable

When visiting the ruins of Pompeii, our advice is to watch your step.

Pomeii’s excavated streets are narrow, with massive cobblestones waiting to trip the unwary.

But then, the city is thought to date back to at least the First Century – and the streets were made ruggedly to withstand heavy traffic from the nearby sea port.

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In places, the roadway is also astonishingly rutted with wheel tracks made by ancient carts and chariots.

However, if you are mobile enough to safely make your way around the excavations, a visit to Pompeii is unforgettable.

It’s quite sobering to wander among the ruins of a city utterly destroyed by a massive fire storm of molten rock and gases?

Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum were cities under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, near modern-day Naples in the Campania region of Italy.

Already well established before the arrival of the ancient Romans, the area became prosperous in part because of its location around a seaport and on the fertile slopes of Vesuvius.

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However, something of a premonition of tragedy occurred in 62 AD, when an earthquake left large parts of Pompeii and neighbouring Herculaneum in ruins.

Reconstruction was still underway on August 24, in 74 AD, when all hell let loose.

The mountain unexpectedly awoke, submerging much of the surrounding countryside under a hurricane of ash and cinder.

The eruption was apparently so violent that the top of the mountain collapsed, sending deadly rivers of lava and mud down its sides.

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After the eruption, Pompeii remained buried under a layer of ash more than six metres deep.

This suffocated the city, but also protected evidence of life at the moment of the tragedy – evidence that came to light more than two centuries ago.

We entered the excavations through the Porta Marina or Sea Gate, which faces towards the sea. There are two stone arches at the gate, one apparently reserved for people and the other for animals.

In front of us unfolded the Forum Plaza, an open area from which narrow streets lead off in a grid-like pattern near the sites of the temple of Venus and Apollo.

From here we wandered past the area where the Basilica stood to signify the centre of the city’s economic life.

Many of the excavated pillars of these former substantial buildings are quite eye-catching and hint at the glory that once was Pompeii. So do the Forum and Central Baths and the many residential areas.

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As we toured the various sections of the ruins, from time to time, we came across plaster casts of victims of the volcanic eruption.

These remarkable casts were created by excavators who poured liquid plaster into the spaces left in the layer of ash by 1,100 human bodies, as well as trees, animals and wooden objects.

This ingenious method of excavation – which worked for just about everything organic that was imprisoned in the ash – apparently began in 1860 and continued into the 20th Century.

Our all-too-brief visit to Pompeii showed not only public buildings and breathtaking villas, but also humble town block with houses, shops, and the bits and pieces of everyday life at the time.

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The darkness that descended from Vesuvius may have snuffed out an era in Pompeii, but it also preserved a slice of Roman life for people to explore.

The buildings, art, artifacts, and bodies forever frozen offer a unique window on this ancient world.

Pompeii is close enough to Rome to be reached in a day trip. See details.

We wholeheartedly recommend a visit.

Ravenna: an Italian jewell

“If you think these are good, make sure you visit Ravenna.”

That advice – from a fellow traveller – came as we marvelled at the stunning mosaic floors in various parts of the Vatican.

And although it hardly seemed possible at the time, he was correct.

We made a point of travelling to Northern Italy to discover that Ravenna is indeed mosaic central.

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Photo courtesy Wikimedia and Peter Milosevic

Ravenna’s mosaic artwork are the very heart of the history and identity of the community, on a low-lying plain near the junction of the Ronco and Montone rivers.

The oldest works, which were installed more than 1,500 years ago, decorate Ravenna’s churches and historic buildings.

And the craft continues today, as illustrated in this excellent article by fellow Australian travel writer, Michael Turtle.

However, it is the mosaic church decorations that bring hordes of tourists to this beautiful city in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region.

The Basilica of San Vitale is said to be one of Europe’s most highly-regarded examples of early Christian Byzantine art and architecture.

Catching the eye

Mosaics in the Basilica are colourful and show much of the local landscape, plants and birds. They were finished when Ravenna was under Gothic rule.

Elsewhere in the city, the Basilica of Sant Apollinare is an early Christian church built at the beginning of the 6th Century

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia and Peter Milosevic

Although many floor mosaics were lost over the years, there are eye-catching decorations on the triumphal arch – the most striking feature of the church.

Ravenna is prominent in history as the capital of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD.

Later, it was the capital of the Kingdom of the Ostrogoths, until it was re-conquered in 540 by the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire.

A strategic port

Ravenna was strategically important because it possessed one of the few good port sites on the northeastern coast of Italy.

The Roman Emperor Augustus built the port of Classis, about three miles (five kilometres) from the city.

By the 1st century BC Ravenna had become the base for Rome’s naval fleet in the Adriatic Sea.

Today, Ravenna marks the influence of Augustus with a bronze statue near the city’s approaches.

The city is connected to the Adriatic by canal.

It is about 219 miles (352 kilometres) by road from Rome and 90 miles or 145 kilometres from Venice.

We thoroughly recommend a visit.

The medieval beating heart of Siena

Although often in the shadow of nearby Florence, the charming provincial city of Siena is a favourite destinations in Italy.

For a start, the heart of Siena retains much of its medieval character, with most modern buildings located outside the city walls.

Walking through the gates, you enter into a city centre made up largely of narrow, winding streets and stately old buildings.

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This is truly the quintessential Italian medieval town, with more than its fair share of palaces and historic structures.

Our eyes were drawn immediately to the shell-shaped square called the Piazza del Campo, where tourists flock each year to watch horse races, known world-wide as the Palio di Siena.

The races, which are of medieval origin, are held twice each year, on 2 July and 16 August, amid local festivities.

Ten horses and riders, bareback and dressed in bright colours, race around the Piazza del Campo on which a thick layer of dirt has been laid. The race is run for three laps of the piazza and usually lasts no more than 90 seconds.

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We wandered to the massive Palazzo Pubblico, which serves at the seat of Siena’s local administration.

The Palazzo Publico is an excellent example of the precision and beauty of Gothic architecture.

Sue was keen to see the remains of the Gala Fountain, a fine early example of garden architecture.

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Siena’s awesome duomo

Secondly, all the striking buildings of Siena are dwarfed by the awesome Cattedrale dell’Assunta (the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption), a magnificent example of Italian Gothic architecture.

The outside of the cathedral is certainly impressive, built in the shape of a Latin cross, with a projecting dome and bell tower.

Constructed between 1215 and 1263 on the site of an earlier structure, the cathedral is decorated both inside and out in white and greenish-black marble – the symbolic colours of Siena.

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Although it is not on a national highway or big rail route, Siena, understandably, is a popular tourist attraction.

It is also an important market town for the surrounding rural area, which produces cattle, grains, olives and superb wines.

Siena is about 30 miles or 48 kilometres south of Florence in the Tuscany region of central Italy. It is about 144 miles or 247 kilometres from Rome.

 

The Duomo di Milano: huge yet lacy

Mark Twain sure knew what he was talking about when he described Milan’s Duomo as “grand and vast –  yet delicate”.

The American author went on to add: “What a wonder it is”

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Courtesy Paul Bica, Toronto, Canada, Flickr and Wikimedia

There’s no doubt the Duomo di Milano is a substantial building. Able to hold 40,000 people and standing 108 metres high, it is the biggest church in Italy and the fifth largest in the world. (St Peter’s Basilica is bigger, but is in the State of Vatican City)

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The Gothic Duomo took almost six centuries to build in a number of contrasting styles. Because of this, the building is regarded as a testament to many changing styles of art and culture.

Check this stunning 360 degree panoramic view provided by the Duomo di Milano website.

Centre of the city

The Duomo sits squarely in the centre of Milan, with city streets either radiating from it, or circling it.

Our guide told us that the site of the Duomo was the most central location in Mediolanum, the ancient settlement established about 600BC that later became the capital of the Western Roman Empire.

It was originally the location of a church and later a cathedral that was ravaged by fire.

The brick and marble Duomo has 3,400 statues, 55 stained glass windows, beautiful altars and paintings.

There is also an early Christian baptistery, dating back to Roman times.

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We took the elevator to the roof, where we were able to see the many spires and sculptures – and we climbed the 50 steps to the highest terraces.

There, amid the marble and lacy ironwork,we were amazed by an unexpected feature of the Duomo’s roof – 135 gargoyles that serve both as decorations of sort and very effective drainpipes.

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The view across Milan was also stunning, including a wonderful look over the busy forecourt at the city’s grand shopping area, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.

The Duomo di Milano is a wonderful attraction and we thoroughly recommend a visit.

Milan is located in Italy’s northern Lombardy region, about 572 miles or five-and-a-half-hours from Rome.

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It is regarded as a global capital of fashion and design and is also a financial hub known for high-end dining and shopping.

 

 

Italy’s Amalfi Coast: a place like no other

Some say it’s the most beautiful place on earth. And there’s no argument here.

The Costiera Amalfitano, or Amalfi Coast of southern Italy, is widely regarded as a place like no other.

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Photo courtesy Pexels

A 50-kilometre stretch along the southern edge of Italy’s Sorrentine Peninsula, the Amalfi Coast is a swirl of breathtakingly-beautiful cliffs, beaches, glamorous resorts, villas, vineyards, lemon groves and pastel-coloured fishing villages.

And, the amazing road that connects it all is also a marvel in its own right.

The Nastro Azzurro, or Blue Ribbon – described by many as the most spectacular road in Europe –  precariously winds and twists its way through this gorgeous landscape: with its edges sometimes only inches from a precipitous drop to the Mediterranean.

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Photo courtesy Dangerous Roads website

Even if you have never visited the Amalfi Coast, you are probably still familiar with the area, as its colourful resorts – that cling like limpets to the cliffs – have been the backdrop to countless films, including Under The Tuscan Sun; A Good Woman; Only You; and Beat The Devil.

Positano

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The most sparkling and best known of the coastal towns, Positano boasts a superb setting.

We were left speechless by the scenery. Positano’s buildings almost seem to be tumbling down the steep hillside.

This slice of heaven also offers boutique hotels, an attractive central beach and meandering lanes and streets lined with restaurants and shops.

Sue particularly loves the many Positano shops that specialise in selling brightly-coloured linen.

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Amalfi and Capri

The town of Amalfi is another picture-postcard jewell, known largely for its striking cathedral, the Duomo di Sant’Andrea,  or the Cathedral of St Andrew – founded in the ninth century.

Once a powerful maritime republic to rival Venice and Genoa, the shores at Amalfi are, these days, better known for moving human cargo – visitors making the short trip to the glamorous Isle of Capri, where the rich and famous mingle and the coast features huge spurs of rock known as the Faraglionj.

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Within metres of Capri’s southern coast, these spurs rise out of the sea, throwing eerie shadows across a shoreline that also features famous grottos bathed in blue and white light.

Capri is a stunningly beautiful island that is well worth the time exploring thoroughly.

Ravello

About 20 minutes from Amalfi, high above the mountains, is the town of Ravello, where views of the coast are rivalled only by historic buildings and famous gardens.

Ravello has long attracted artists, musicians, craftsmen and authors from all over the world. The town also features outstanding gardens – notably those of the Villa Rufolo and Villa Cimbrone – excellent art galleries and craft stores selling everything from cashmere to ceramics.

World Heritage listing

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Photo courtesy Pexels

The awesome beauty of the Amalfi Coast is, of course, made all the more remarkable by the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean and the green swath of its mountain backdrop.

And it’s not only the hordes of travellers and visitors who are enthralled by this stunning part of Italy’s Campania region.

Since 1997, the Amalfi Coast has been on the World Heritage list, after UNESCO deemed it an “outstanding example of a Mediterranean landscape”.

Getting there

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The Amalfi Coast is about 287 kilometres south of Rome.

We believe the best time to visit is from April to June, when the spring flowers are in bloom.

Take the train to Naples and from there you can take the Circumvesuviana train to Sorrento. From Sorrento you can take a SITA bus to anywhere along the coast.

If you’re headed to the town of Amalfi, you may want to take the train to Salerno and then the bus.

Don’t forget the Limoncello

In recent years, the Amalfi Coast has also become well known for Limoncello, a locally-produced lemon liquer whose fame has quickly spread around the world.

Amazing Rome tugs at the heart

“What did the Romans ever do  for us’ is surely the silliest question ever.

One of the world’s most beautiful destinations and the capital of a wonderful country, the Eternal City has long held a special place in our hearts.

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It has a warm embrace of history that you can feel in the air; a sense of walking in the shoes of civilisation and of stepping back centuries.

Built by Romulus in about 753 BC, Rome is a cosmopolitan city with thousands of years of influential art, architecture and culture.

Our favourite sight is the wonderful Roman Pantheon, an ancient temple dedicated to all the gods of pagan Rome. On our last visit, we stood transfixed as the marble walls echoed to a solitary angelic voice singing what we took to be an Italian hymn.

See this remarkable moment:

Completed by the emperor Hadrian about 126 AD on the site of a building that dates to about 27 BC, the Pantheon is the best preserved  building of ancient Rome

Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon’s dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. Michelangelo is said to have studied it before starting work on the roof of St. Peter’s Basilica.

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The oculus, the only source of natural light in the Pantheon, is a round opening in the centre of the dome. It is 27 feet in diameter and open to the sky (the floor is gently sloped to allow for runoff of rainwater).

Since the 7th century, the Pantheon has been used as a church, informally known by the locals as ‘Santa Maria Rotonda’ with its striking stone pillars and incredible acoustics.

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The square in front of the Pantheon is called Piazza della Rotonda and is surrounded by cute Italian coffee shops.

There is so much to see and do in Rome – from the ancient ruins of the Roman Forum and the Colosseum, to the sparkle of the Trevi Fountain; the treasures of Vatican City; the Spanish Steps; the mysterious catacombs; and the wonderful monument known as the Altare della Patria, or ‘Altar of the Fatherland’.

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But, if you haven’t seen it  before, make sure you find time to visit the Pantheon during your visit to the Eternal City.

The Pantheon is located right in the heart of ancient Rome. It is open to the public daily except for some national holidays and if a Mass is taking place.

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