Lindsey Steenkamp explores three memorable cities in one unforgettable country.
Let me state from the outset that I love Italy. My musings for this article are thus pre-ordained in their bias. Forgive me then as a I recount five glorious days in Rome, a flirtation with Florence and a fleeting trip to Lake Como, without taking a critical eye, and for affording little time to each stop. This is simply a glimpse into a country as beautiful as it is old.
When in Rome
The story starts where modern civilisation was born, in Rome. After taking a train from Leonardo da Vinci International Airport to the city centre, it’s a great relief to find that the apartment I’ve rented for a week is within brief walking distance of the terminal. Rome is a true blend of ancient and modern. My rental apartment has all the fittings of contemporary city life, but is set within old clay bricked walls with a bay window that overlooks one of the many cobbled streets in the heart of Rome. It is perfect.
When in Rome, there are several mandatory stops. Cited by all the travel brochures as must-sees, dutifully, I came, I saw, and I concurred.
First on my list was the Vatican City Museum and The Sistine Chapel. With over 70,000 masterpieces of painting, sculpture and art collected over centuries, there’s a lot to take in at the museum. The Sistine Chapel, however, is my focus. Incredible interior walls are decorated with frescoes by Florentine Renaissance masters like Botticelli, but it’s the ceiling of the Sistine that I most want to see. Michelangelo’s masterpiece, created over four years and, I suspect, with back-painstaking patience, is beyond compare. Time in the chapel is limited and photographs of any kind are forbidden, but those images are etched in my mind forever.
The Colosseum, the world’s largest amphitheatre, doesn’t bowl me over, even though I imagine Caesar applauding gladiators after grotesque battles between man and beast back in the days of the Circus Maximus. It is rather eerie to be connected with the brutality of ancient Rome in such a material way.
Instead of throwing money into crypto, there’s always the Trevi Fountain. Clichéd as it might be, tossing a coin and making a wish feels really good. Of course, it’s best completed with a decadent and over-priced gelato ice cream, available from dozens of outlets within a tiny radius of the world’s most famous fountain. Rome with its madcap moped riders, fast-talking sidewalk vendors, endless souvenir shops, spectacular ancient ruins and irritable waiters serving irresistible pasta, is a like a live wire from my apartment’s exposed clay-brick wall, always ready to inject the day with a spark of wonder, while its connections remain inextricably linked to the past.
The Renaissance, Man
Mark Twain once described Florence as a “city of dreams”. Thomas Harris in his novels frequently references Florence, as Hannibal Lecter cites the view of the Duomo from the Belvedere in The Silence of The Lambs as “being painted by memory”. Florence clearly inspires great writers and unforgettable literary characters to extoll its virtues.
Perhaps it’s because the city was the birthplace of the Renaissance and still embodies the spirit of Italy’s past, seven hundred years later. It is physically beautiful but its greatest attraction is the sense of being in a time capsule, where ancient aesthetics function inside a vibrant hub of contemporary Italian hustle. You can buy a handbag from a Versace signature store or, if your pockets are more modest, negotiate a bargain at the Mercato Centrale and Mercato di San Lorenzo, two landmark outdoor markets. Either way you look cool.
Florence is an ideal short-stop destination as its most iconic and historical components are concentrated into a small area. Taking a fast train from Rome at the crack of dawn is the answer if you want a quick but satisfying cultural fix. I arrive in Florence within the hour and start exploring Tuscany’s most celebrated city while the café owners are still putting out chairs, sweeping the pavements and preparing to host the daily influx of visitors with an equal dose of disdain and charm. It’s a good idea to grab some biscotti or an espresso while the streets are still empty. They won’t stay that way for long.
The ‘Cradle of the Renaissance’ is home to some of the world’s most important museums and art galleries. It offers me evidence of our incredible capacity for artistic expression as well as arming me with eternal bragging rights having witnessed Michelangelo’s David and Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus first hand.
Traversing the city on foot is the best way to fully ingest the local culture and history. I take a long walk up to Piazzale Michelangelo and stand above Florence, surveying the city in all its majesty. The panoramic viewpoint is far more than an Instagrammable moment, it’s a chance to reflect on the place that gave birth to a seismic cultural movement as well as some of the most influential artists and scientists ever known to man.
On the Waterfront
Italy is all about living with style. Nowhere is this ethos more evident than at Lake Como, just north of Milan. Hemmed in by the snow-capped Alps and surrounded by postcard-perfect villas nestling on the tranquil waters, you’re stepping into celebrity home territory here. Lake Como represents glamour, but very much in the Continental sense of the word, without much swagger or self-promotion. Subtle. Elegant. Unmistakable.
I grab a train from Milan, Italy’s fashion capital, and head to Como to see what all the fuss is about. Boarding at Stazione Centrale, I alight at San Giovanni, Como’s main station, 40 minutes later, after a scenic train trip.
Como is an ancient town mixed with some modern urban sprawl. The old town, Centro Storico, is an active hub of cobbled lanes, congregational squares, small shops and pavement cafés where great coffee is the norm. It’s a real working town, not just a tourist trap, and I like it for that. Como is surrounded by green hills dotted with funiculars leading to incredible hillside homes. A short stroll leads to the waterfront where the town opens up to a villarimmed basin which is more the Lake Como of travel shows and glamorous movie scenes I had imagined. Here I find a network of ferries ready to take me upstream to explore the smaller villages and lakeside towns like the renowned beauty spot of Bellagio. I didn’t meet the Clooneys on this trip, but it was a glimpse into how the other half lives. In fact, for at least a day or two, I felt as if I was the other half, and that can’t be all bad.
To recommend a trip to Italy seems redundant. Of course you must see it. The country is a heady mix of typical tourist traps and awe-inspiring tradition, of undeniably fantastic food and very grumpy café proprietors. It’s everything you expect it to be and a whole lot more. ✤