The idea for a tour of Italy started when Caroline’s Tai Chi mentor, Dr. Paul Lam, developer of the Tai Chi for Health programs, announced that he would be holding a training workshop for some of his Master Trainers and Senior Trainers in the Florence, Italy area on the 11 to 15 th of April, 2011. It took us only a few minutes to decide that Caroline would attend and we would then work a sightseeing trip around the Workshop.
Our initial plan was to take a Colette Vacations group tour to Egypt (Including Cairo, the Pyramids, Aswan and a Nile River cruise) prior flying to Italy for the workshop. We worked with our Travel Agent at Colette and set up that part of the trip. Then we contacted Travel Agent PierPaola Paoletti of the Robin Tour office in Bologna (who had been recommended to us by another of Dr. Lam’s Master Trainers, Roberto Crea also of Bologna) to arrange for a short stay in Rome and Venice prior to the Workshop. Just after we had made payment on the Colette tour, the turmoil in Egypt broke out. It took about six weeks for Colette to decide to cancel the tour and refund our money.
We then got back to PierPaola and after many emails back and forth developed a three-week trip to the Aosta Valley, Milan, Venice, Rome, the Workshop at Artimino, ending in Florence. PierPaola was extremely helpful and understanding as we kept making changes to our itinerary, and we both appreciate all her work in making this amazing adventure happen flawlessly.
April (2:45 PM) 1- April 2 (9:10 AM) Fly RDU to Atlanta to Milan, Italy
Saturday, April 2 We arrived at Malpensa Airport, which is about 50 km (about 31 miles) from downtown Milan. As we gathered our luggage we were met by a car and driver to take us to our Hotel, the NH-President, located right in the center of the city. As we had arrived mid-morning, we left our luggage at the hotel and walked a few blocks to the nearby Piazza Duomo
Our walk took us through this traffic circle with a fountain at it’s center. Note the cobblestone road.
The Duomo di Milano (The Cathedral of Milan at one side of the Piazza Duomo)
Construction of this Cathedral began in 1380 and some restorations continue today
Piazza Duomo – Cathedral Plaza The archway leads to a large indoor shopping mall.
After brunch at an outdoor café, we walked down Via Dante toward the Castello Sforzesco.
We walked back to the Piazza Duomo and into the Shopping Mall. In the center was a large modernistic sculpture of an airplane.
The roof is vaulted glass with murals; the floor is tile mosaic
We walked back to our Hotel, checked in, retrieved our luggage, found our room and rested for a few hours before heading out to find dinner. On the way back into the hotel Caroline found this marble wall plaque and had to duplicate the pose using a Tai Chi kick.
Sunday, April 3 After an excellent buffet breakfast in the Hotel, we were met by our guide for the day, Mrs. Elena Checcin, along with a car and driver, for our expedition into the Aosta Region.
Caroline’s great-grandparents had emigrated to America from that region. Aosta is a semi-autonomous region with a lot of French history, and both Italian and French are spoken and are used on all signs. During the 2-½ hour drive, Caroline and Elena reviewed all the notes on her family that Caroline had brought with her. When Elena saw a reference to one ancestor being from Cogne, she arranged for the driver to take a detour to that small village high in the mountains.
Located on the edge of the Gran Paradiso National Park, Cogne is a main gateway into the Park for winter downhill and cross-country skiing. Note that in early April there was still snow on the ground.
We reluctantly left after spending a couple of hours wandering around the village, and headed back down the mountain and on to the town of Aosta.
We entered Aosta through the remains of the City wall built in 55 BC by the Romans.
Some of the original granite facing is still in place on walls and arches.
And old Roman watch-towers are now apartment homes.
Elena led us through several narrow streets lined with shops and homes to a small square where we ate lunch at an outdoor café.
After Lunch, we walked back through a different side of the town, with a view of the Italian Alps.
The sculptures over the entrance to the Church in Aosta, and some of the murals on the entry walls.
An entry into the Roman Coliseum at Aosta The Coliseum is being preserved using the original stone where possible.
The Arch of Augustus, originally built in 25 to 23 BC, and restored in 1913-1914.
And then our visit to Aosta had to end and we headed back down the highway back to Milan. During this visit to the Aosta valley, Caroline felt a strong connection with the area, and we plan to try to get back there in the next year or so for a more in-depth visit.
Monday – April 4 Elena took us on a short walking tour of central Milan, including Piazza della Scala where the famous LaScala Opera House is located and which has a statue of Leonardo Da Vinci in the center.
After a quick lunch at another outdoor café, we were picked up at the hotel for the short trip to the Milan Railroad Station, where we followed the signage (both in English and Italian) up three floors to the platforms where we watched the large signboard until our Trenitalia High Speed train was listed. Then it was a short walk to the platform where we boarded the train for the journey to Venice. We were a little confused by the signs on the various cars as we had seats in “Car 2” and the cars had large signs with numbers 1 & 2 on them. Found out after we were seated that those meant 1 st & 2 nd class, so we had to move up to the 1 st class car where we were booked.
Once in the correct car, we were off on a 2 hour 25 minute ultra smooth ride to Venice, a distance of around 175 miles. Considering we made 5 stops, and slowed for a while in a construction area, we averaged around 73 mph on the trip. The train traveled over a causeway across the Laguna Veneta (Venetian Lagoon) to the Island of Venice.
VENICE On arriving, we were met by another guide who took us to the adjacent dock for a Water Taxi to take us to Hotel Santa Maria.
A Gondola passes the Hotel’s dock on one of the smaller canals.
After getting settled into our room, we got directions from the Front Desk and made our way to a small nearby restaurant with both indoor and outdoor seating. We sat outdoors and had an excellent dinner as dusk fell. Venice is relatively small, with a population of around 60,000. You get around on foot or by boat (water buses, water taxis, private boats, etc.) Every square foot is valuable, so lanes between buildings are narrow, with occasional small open squares. Fortunately for the tourist, there are frequent signs that direct you to major points of reference, such as St. Mark’s Square, the Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal, etc.
Tuesday - April 5 After a buffet breakfast at the Hotel, we were met Tuesday morning by our guide, Mrs. Emanuela for a 2-hour walking tour. Our first stop was the St. Mark’s Square with its iconic Bell Tower, and St. Mark’s Cathedral.
One of the buildings on the Square was being renovated. Rather than leave such work exposed, we found many such construction projects screened by large murals showing the image of the renovated building and usually adding an advertisement.
Our walking tour ended at the main Gondola Dock, where we set off on a 45-minute tour of the canals of Venice
Once at the station, we were quickly on board for the 3 hour 45 minute trip to Rome. We were met at the Train Station by our driver to take us to the Hotel, The Grand Hotel Plaza on Via del Corso in central Rome.
Once settled into our room, we headed out to find a place to eat and found an outdoor café in a nearby plaza. A side note: In Italy, air-conditioning is not turned on until June – even in a $400/night hotel. So despite a heat wave all we could do was tolerate the hot, sticky rooms. Friday - April 8 After a great multi-course breakfast at the Hotel, we met our Rome Guide, Mrs. Sabrina Vignaroli, for a full day tour of Rome.
We walked a couple of blocks from the Hotel to the Spanish Steps, originally built in 1723 to provide access up the hill to the Santissima Trinità dei Monti Church.
At the bottom of the Steps is the Fontana della Barcaccia ("Fountain of the Old Boat"), built in 1627-29.
The Spanish Steps is a common gathering area, and in the afternoon and evening is often full of people sitting on the steps. At one corner of the Steps is the former home of English Poet John Keats, now a Museum to Keats.
A short walk from the Spanish Steps took us to the magnificent Trevi Fountain, completed in 1762 after 32 years of construction. It is over 65 feet wide.
Our walk continued to the south, and turning a corner we were suddenly in the midst of the ruins of Ancient Rome.
And then Sabrina had another surprise for us – The Coliseum.
A Personal Note: During my Freshman Year at Purdue (1953) I came to love Classical music. And one of my favorite works is “The Pines of Rome” the middle section of Ottorino Respighi’s Roman Trilogy. On seeing these actual pines of Rome that inspired Respighi, the strains of that music came flooding into my head.
Our next place to visit was the Vatican area. As we were quite away from that area, Sabrina suggested we take the subway, the Metropolitana. So we headed the the station next to the Coliseum and soon were on our way to the Vatican Museum station and a few steps later we were at the museum itself and had tickets (r) in hand.
From Floor to Ceiling we were surrounded by amazing works of art: paintings, statues, mosaics and more. (Only limited photography is allowed)
And then it was on to the Papal Basilica of Saint Peter.
We exited the Basilica through the Front Entrance, and were in the Papal Audience area, shown so often in the news.
The Pope’s apartments are on the top floor, and he often appears at the window.
Saturday – April 9 After the long day Friday, we decided that we would take it a little easier on Saturday. After another great breakfast buffet (breakfasts turned out to be as good as or better than some dinners) we headed out on our own to explore another part of Rome.
Our first stop was at the Pantheon. This Church building dates back to an original building commissioned by Marcus Agrippa around 20 BC. It has been destroyed and rebuilt several times.
The fountain in front of the Pantheon includes an obelisk brought back to Rome from Egypt during the Roman conquest of the Egypt.
The Fountain of the Four Rivers in the center of Piazza Navona
The center of the fountain has four streams of water representing the Rivers Nile, Danube, Ganges and Plata. The center is another Obelisk brought from Egypt.
At one end of the Plaza many local artists were showing and selling their works. One of the few souvenirs we brought back was a panel of three pen and ink sketches of Rome by one of these artists.
On the way back to the Hotel we came across an artist doing chalk drawings on the sidewalk.
At the Florence station we were met by another car and driver for the 45 minute drive to the village of Artimino, and the Albergo (Hotel) Paggeria Medicea on the grounds of La Fernandina, the Palace of one of the Medici Dukes in the 1500’s.
When we arrived at the hotel, we were surprised to meet PierPaola Paoletti, (seated Right) the Robin Tour travel agent from Bologna who had made all of our hotel, transportation and guide arrangements for our trip and for some of the other workshop participants as well. We really appreciate her detailed planning and patience with our many changes in our itinerary.
This building had originally been servants quarters for the palace, but now is a hotel catering to tourists and conventions at the Palace.
As it was still Spring, the sunshades over the outdoor lounge area were not yet open.
The view of the rolling Tuscan hills as seen from the balcony in front of our room.
From the Hotel grounds, the Village of Artimino lies beyond large Olive groves.
Dr. Lam’s Workshop for twenty of his Master and Senior Tai Chi Trainers from around the world was held in the Medici Palace – now a Convention Center.
Part of the one-way road around the Village of Artimino
The Hotel’s Restaurant Building as seen from the road to the Village of Artimino.
Toward the end of the Workshop we were all given a tour of the Palace by one of the Hotel managers. Formal Portraits of the Duke and Duchess.
The private Chapel, and the Chapel Ceiling. (Artwork has been restored but believed to be accurate.)
A wardrobe from the Duke’s time – it was so big it could not be taken out of the building when other furnishings were moved. Inset: A door latch.
Part of the ground floor is a working winery.
The spit in the Kitchen is turned by a mechanism built by Leonardo DaVinci.
Wrought iron chandelier holds candles to illuminate a drawing room. This room was used for the Tai Chi Training.
Some of the workshop participants look at the weapon and flag collection.
Friday – April 15 After the last workshop session, we all boarded a bus to take us back to Florence to the Hotel Londra. Some of the group left right away for home or other travels. Some, including us, stayed in Florence for a couple of days sightseeing.
Saturday – April 16 After another fantastic Breakfast Buffet at the Hotel, we headed our for a morning of exploration on our own. We quickly found the Piazza in front of Santa Maria Novella Church.
We then made our way around the Cattredale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Cathedral of St. Maria of Florence), looking at all the small shops.
We stopped for lunch at a small café on the Cathedral square, with delightful menu and interior décor.
Then, in the land of gelato (having sampled it in every city we visited), we were surprised to find Ben & Jerry’s. ----------------------- We headed back to the Hotel to meet our guide for an afternoon tour of Florence, Mrs. Susanna Sarti.
Our first stop was a closer look at the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore; the 3 rd largest cathedral in the world after St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London. Work on the cathedral began in the 4 th century and the last major renovation in the 1400’s.
Next to the Cathedral is the bell tower designed by Giotto and completed in 1359.
Across from the main entrance to the Cathedral is the Baptistry of Florence, whose massive gilded bronze doors are shown at the right. The Baptistry dates from the 11 th -13 th century, and is on the site of the first Christian Church in Florence built in the 4 th -5 th century.
Our next stop was the Piazza della Signoria. At one side is the Loggia die Lanzi, an open-air sculpture gallery. Among the works is the bronze statue of Perseus by Benvenuto Cellini.
At one side of the Piazza is the Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall of Florence, built starting in 1299. It was designed as a fortress as well as an official office and residence. Note that the clock has only one hand.
Sunday – April 17 This morning, Mrs. Sarti took us to the Ponte Vecchio, the most known bridge over the Arno River. Along the central walkway are many small shops, many added afterwards and supported by timbers angled into the bridge base.
After crossing the bridge, our guide took us through some of the residential areas on that side of the river.
We stopped at the Loggia del Mercato Nuovo, a large market area, and came across this bronze statue of a pig. Legend has it if you rub his nose you will return to Florence! Maybe we will!
We decided to have lunch, and our guide suggested a small restaurant suggested by our guide before she had to leave. This is the view from the restaurant window.
After a delicious lunch, we continued to explore the area on the West side of the Arno River. We came to a small square, where a number of local crafts people were selling their various wares. This couple made herbal remedies, and Caroline found a liniment – Balsamo Dell’Atleta – to rub on her feet sore from all the walking.
Heading back to the Hotel, we crossed back over the river by the Ponte Alla Carraia bridge.
Mrs. Sarti had strongly recommended we visit the Farmacia di S. Maria Novella.
This mid-1800 building holds a working modern pharmacy (left: the service counter and waiting room), as well as a collection of vintage remedies and herbals.
We returned to our hotel and enjoyed a quiet dinner, then finished packing as our visit to Italy was about to end. Monday – April 18 Waiting for an early breakfast (the only time we watched TV in Italy), we saw pictures of the Tornado the previous evening in Raleigh on CNN, from a local weather camera as the twister enveloped it. We had no damage, however a friend’s house sustained some roof damage. We were met at the door by a car and driver to take us to Peretola Airport for a 10 AM flight back via Paris and Boston to Raleigh-Durham arriving home at 9:30 pm.