Sunday, 8 May 2011


It's been a few busy months, mostly with work. But it all pays off. In the end of April I went to Torino, in Italy, to present some of the work I've been busy with (two best paper nominations, luck me). And as usual, I took a few days off after the conference to go travel.
Italy has been the exception of my Western Europe travels. I've visited extensively most Western European countries (Portugal, Spain, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Czech Republic...), but Italy kept eluding me. I did go to Torino before, as well as a nice motorcycle trip to Verona and Venezia, but that's about it.

The vertiginous lift climb inside the Mole.
Being back in Torino felt familiar (my third time there). This time I managed to do a bit of visiting; with a few good friends, we spent the little free time we had walking around, visiting many of the piazzas (San Carlo, Castello...), and also took the lift up to the Mole Antonelliana, which gave us great views across the city. Also, the conference banquet was in the Basilica di Superga, which we got to visit.

The last day in Torino was spent wandering around, eating wonderful pasta and topping it off with ice-cream. We got to see Mark Webber touring the streets of the city: how often do you get to see that!
Finally, in the middle of the afternoon it was time to catch my train down to Firenze.

Part I. Toscana

I arrived there in the evening, dropped my bags in the hostel, and off I went in search of dinner and for a quick tour of the city. And at the turn of a corner, I saw this:

The Duomo. Right there, unexpectedly. I had been told by many people that I would love Firenze, but I was still pleasantly surprised. It's one of those small cities that bring you back in time (others include Luzern and Annecy). I spent most of the night wandering aimlessly around the small cobbled stone streets, soaking in the atmosphere of the place.
Late in the night, I finally returned to the hostel (Archi Rossi). Quite an interesting place, with its heavily graffiti laden walls and a lovely and quiet back garden. Completely exhausted, I slept 11h.

The next (short) day was spend in terraces around Firenze, finishing some work with a tight deadline. I could think of worse places to work! In the evening I went for another long walk around the city, crossing the Arno and exploring the South side. Ponte Vecchio is so charming in the evening time:

The following day I started doing what was my plan for this trip: base myself in Firenze, and do day trips all around Toscana. First destination, Pisa! I caught the train in the early morning, and spent a few hours in lovely Pisa. And yes, Pisa is famous mainly for the Piazza Dei Miracoli, and me being a tourist, that's exactly where I spent most of my time. I visited the Battistero, where I listened to a custodian demonstrating the remarkable acoustics of the double dome; wandered around the Camposanto; and visited the impressive Duomo, with its golden roof.

The beautiful Duomo.

The tower's worn steps.
After a seafood lunch, it was time to go up the tower (tickets are bought hours in advance, for a specific time). I'm known for avoiding over-touristic activities (I did live for 3 years in Paris without ever climbing the Eiffel Tower), but this time I couldn't resist it. Going up and down the tower I got an unexpected surprise: I felt sea-sick. It does make sense: going around the tower with no external reference, all you feel is that some steps are harder to take, whereas others are much easier, much like in a rocking boat. It was a funny experience, and the views from the top were great.

Yes, it does lean.
Piaza Dei Miracoli from the tower.

Walking back to the train station, I still managed to explore a bit the city, with far fewer tourists around. I walked along the Arno, enjoying the gorgeous mountain views.

Chiesa di Santa Maria della Spina, the Arno, and the mountains.

Then it was back in the train, destination: Lucca. I got there in the early evening, and went for a lovely walk along the imposing, grassy city walls. That was followed by a random exploration of the tiny Lucchesi streets, and a visit to the curious looking Cattedrale di San Martino, with the exquisite collection of columns on its facade (all different).
I still had time to visit the archaeological site beneath the Chiesa e Battistero dei SS Giovanni e Reparata, where later on in the evening I saw an opera recital of Mozart and Puccini songs, staged by the Puccini e la sua Lucca organisation.
Finally, it was back in the train to Firenze, where I had a late dinner and the costumary night walk along the city.

The next day I met up with Kaori, my good Japanese friend whom I had met last year in Barcelona; by coincidence we were both travelling at the same time in Italy, and decided to meet for a few days in Firenze. So we took a morning train to Siena (followed by a local bus). We were greeted with torrential rain; but luck favours the brave, and the weather finally opened up. Siena was yet another lovely city; crooked, steep streets, a lively central square (Piazza del Campo), and the fantastic Duomo, with its rich interior, decorated with alternating white and black marble and colourful flags.

Kaori insisted we try to squeeze San Gimignano in the same day, and I'm glad she did. Another bus trip took us there through the rolling Tuscan hills, and we arrived in the late evening, just in time to witness the golden light of the setting sun bathing the old stone town. This being quite late, the town was almost deserted. It was magical, probably one of the highlights of the whole trip. We just wandered around, went for a walk outside the city walls to see the sunset, and finally took the very last buses back to Firenze. Late dinner, night walk around the city, you guessed it.

The next day we set off to Assisi, recommended by a respected fellow traveller. In the 2h30 train trip, we met Daniele, an Italian pizza cook going to Perugia for the first time for a new job. We shared our bottle of Chianti, and had a great time chatting about anything and everything.

We reached Assisi in the early afternoon, and took the bus up to the town. The weather was glorious. We spent a long time exploring the Basilica di San Francesco, with its lovely frescoes, the tomb of S. Francis, some of his old memorabilia, and the impressive 28-part fresco in the upper church.

Assisi from Rocca Maggiore
We carried on exploring the city, and then made the long steep way up to the Rocca Maggiore. The views were great, and we had a lot of fun exploring the cramped defensive walls. Back down in the town. we had a massive ice-cream, and then it was back in the train, for a fast trip to Arezzo. We reached it really late, and had basically one hour to wander around, before the last train back to Firenze. Arezzo was the set of Benigni's La Vitta è Bella, and some of it definitely reminded me of the film, such as the the lovely Piazza Grande.

Arezzo's Piazza Grande

The next day was the last in Firenze, and we finally decided to visit the city, with daylight for a change. We decided to join a group tour going around (and up) the Duomo. After so many nights gasping at its beautiful exterior, the inside was a bit of a disappointment (especially when compared to the richness of the Pisa and Siena cathedrals); but the dome was beautiful, and the walk along the upper walls was really cool.

Vertigo from the top of the Duomo
We spent the afternoon around the south side, trying to visit the (unfortunately closed) Giardino Torrigianni and Giardino di Bardini. We ended up going for a great picnic by the Arno, followed by a last night walk around Firenze. What a great city.

Basking in Ponte Vecchio

Part II. Roma

Having spent most of the holiday in Tuscany, meant that I only had a full day and two half days in Rome, and hence had to make the most of it. I left Firenze in the morning, sharing a train until Rome with Kaori (who kept going down to Napoli). I dropped my bags in the M&J Hostel (not nearly as good as the one in Firenze), and headed out to the Ancient Rome area.
Luck didn't want anything to do with me, and both the Colosseum and the Palatine were closed because of a strike... I had to content myself with external views. I followed that with a visit to the massive Vittoriano:

At this stage, the combination of long walks, Friday evening rush traffic, and endless tourists were having the best of me. I thankfully found refuge by the Tiber, walking along the river on my own. A great break from the bustle of Rome!

I walked around the old Campo de'Fiori, and had a look at the art exhibition in Palazzo Spada, mainly to have a look at Borromini's corridor illusion: a strech of columns, each slightly smaller than the previous, giving the impression of a long corridor leading to a life-size statue, whereas in fact it's merely 10m long, and the statue is hip high. No photos allowed, however... I spent the remainder of the day enjoying the streets of Rome.

Saturday was fully dedicated to the Vatican. This being a Easter holiday weekend, it was bound to be insane... I was not disappointed: the queue to enter St. Peter's Basilica alone made a half tour of Piazza San Pietro. I persisted though, and it was well worth the wait. Its sheer size is unbelievable, and so is the richness of the interior. I finally got to see Michelangelo's Pietà, and also visited the impressive Museo Storico Artistico. The richness of it all was borderline between amazing and opulent.

I also went up the dome (another one). It was some climb, very narrow and even slightly dangerous at times; quite often everybody had to stop because some old person needed to recover their breath... if one stops, everybody stops. Not recommended for the faint of heart (and there were a lot going up anyway). But it was nonetheless a great experience, and the views from the top more than made up for it (for that and for the endless hours queueing).

After a brief lunch break, it was time for the Vatican museums. Talk about crowds (and opulence)! I tried to soak in as much as I could, but after a while just had to follow the endless crowds all the way to the Capella Sistina. It was a long, long walk, but it had to be done. Along the way, one of my favourite places was the Galleria delle Carte Geografiche. But the Sistine Chapel really is the real deal. Unbelievable, despite the huge (and loud) crowds of tourists, taking sneaky snapshots, despite the desperate cries of "no photo!" by the curators. I resisted the temptation.

I still had time to visit the Castel Sant'Angelo, with its secret passage along the walls, and then just wandered the streets of Rome back to the hostel. In the evening, I went for yet another long walk, with a group of Argentinian travellers from the hostel, we had a great time.

Ponte Sant'Angelo

The Spanish Steps

And all of a sudden, it was my last day in Italy. I started with what instantly became the highlight of my trip: the Pantheon. Despite all the richness of churches and cathedrals, it really impressed me the most. Looking up above the crowds, it almost felt as if I was back in ancient Rome. Truly spectacular.

The death of Gaul
I got a lot done on my last day. Managed to visit three of the four sites of the Museo Nazionale Romano, where I saw hundreds of statues, beautiful and colourful Roman mosaics, and got a great impression (in Crypta Balbi) of the layers upon layers upon which Rome is built.
I also visited quite a lot of churches. One of the most impressive was the Chiesa del Gesù, quite rightfully considered to be one of the most beautiful in Rome. But also the Chiesa di Sant'Agostino and Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi, with their Caravaggios and other stunning paintings. I also got to hang out around Piazza Navona, with its three fountains and hordes of peoples.

The stunning Chiesa del Gesù

Piazza Navona

And that was it. A last dash led me to another of Rome's illusions, the Chiesa di Sant'Ignazio di Loyola and it's fake dome, and then it was time for train, plane, bus and back home in Dublin.

Chiesa di Sant'Ignazio di Loyola. Look closer - it's a fake dome.