exploring italy

There are houses and streets in Mt. Lebanon more than 100 years old. The oldest man-made structure in Pittsburgh, the Ft. Pitt Block House, will celebrate its 250th anniversary next year. If you are a history buff, however, when you are walking on the streets of Rome, Italy and see the letters S.P.Q.R. on the manhole covers and street corners, you realize that we are infants in world history. When the city engineers of Rome were laying out the foundations of the city in 80 B.C., they reminded the citizens of the source of their power with the notation, S.P.Q.R., translated from the Latin: the Senate and People of Rome. Many of the buildings and monuments that daily traffic winds around, like the Colosseum and the Forum, saw the Caesars walk through them.

In the U.S., a historic building can be 200 years old. The Colosseum is almost 10 times older.     In the U.S., a historic building can be 200 years old. The Colosseum is almost 10 times older.
In the U.S., a historic building can be 200 years old. The Colosseum is almost 10 times older.

A bit later, other buildings and monuments made their mark, such as Hadrian’s tomb and St. Peter’s Cathedral, the entrance to the Vatican. Rome is so old that buildings less than 500 years old are not even thought of as historic. There are hotels and restaurants in Rome that are more than 500 years old. It is a city of history and contrasts. During my first visit to Rome, many years ago, my taxi driver insisted on taking me to what he considered the most important spot in Rome. As we sat in the taxi across the street from what I later learned was the house of the Mayor of Rome, he told me to count up five floors of the apartment building and count three windows across from the corner. When I asked what I was looking for, he said “that’s where Sophia Loren lives!”

Regardless of the economy, the politics, the bickering among the European countries, Rome is still the place of La Dolce Vita, the sweet life. There is always time for two or three coffee breaks during the day, and a three-hour dinner starting at 9 P.M. Many people, when going to Europe for the first time, make the mistake of trying to do or see too much in a short time. Ten days in Italy offers so much sightseeing that you will not have time for anything else. One way to maximize your time is to obtain tickets for certain museums online. Two of the most popular are the Vatican Museum, which includes the Sistine Chapel (mv.vatican.va) and the Galleria Borghese (www.galleriaborghese.it).

Tourists walking and admiring Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.
Tourists admiring the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.

If you simply show up at either place, you might stand in line for three to four hours. Get tickets online. The three Italian cities most visited by Americans are Rome, Florence and Venice. A month in each city would not be enough. If your trip is 10 days or fewer, your best choices are Rome and Florence. Leaving from Pittsburgh will require one plane change. Since every major airline flies to Rome, your options are many. I recommend using Kayak (www.kayak.com) for booking both flights and hotels. Once you land in Rome, there is a train from the airport to the central station in the center of Rome which takes about 25 minutes. Over the years, I have stayed in many hotels in Rome. Although my personal favorites are the Inter-Continental and the Parco dei Principi, the time of the year will determine the hotel you choose. From early May to September, every 4- and 5-star hotel will sell out. If you can wait until later, October or November, the prices drop by half and all of the tourists have gone home. The weather in the fall is also perfect; mid 70s instead of the 80s and 90s in July and August.

Because Florence is only a one and one-half hour train ride from Rome, you should spend at least two days there (www.raileurope.com). Florence does not seem to have a season. It is full all of the time. Although Rome is the center of modern civilization, Florence is the birthplace of European art. I would recommend going on the Uffizi gallery web site to buy tickets.You avoid very long lines and can go directly into the gallery at a specific time. Remember, galleries are closed on Mondays in Europe. Both Rome and Florence are so steeped in history and art, that you will see only a glimpse of each city, regardless of how many times you visit. I recommend obtaining a good guidebook from the Mt. Lebanon Library and plan your itinerary before you leave. Above all, leave some hours every day for simply wandering around. It might be the best part of the trip. Ciao!