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A ROMAN HOLIDAY

"All roads lead to Rome" goes an olden proverb as testimony to the reach of the Roman Empire that saw tributes flowing in from all parts of the known world then. Our own road to Rome was a short flight from Warsaw on Alitalia without frontier checks, a blessing of the Schengen visa agreement. The latest count has got 26 European Union nations that fall under this regime making travel inside Europe relatively hassle free. My wife and I decided to visit Rome and Tuscany for our summer vacation.

Spanish Steps in "Roman Holiday"
A Roman Holiday evokes an aura of romance against the backdrop of haute couture and historical ruins. Gucci and Garibaldi jostle for prominence cheek by jowl in the crowded streets milling with a multitude of insatiable tourists. The spirits of Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn commingle with that of Romeo and Juliet. We spy Laila and Majnu holding hands. Hordes of Yuris and Laras descend upon Rome today irrespective of the west applying sanctions on Putin's resurgent Russia. After all, "Doctor Zhivago" was first published in Italy when the Soviets banned it.

We stayed in a downtown hotel at walking distance from the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain, a suggestion from our travel agent we are grateful for. Our first foray outside our hotel took us to the famous Spanish Steps. We were disappointed as the steps were closed for renovation but the square itself, Piazza Spagna, is full of hustle and bustle with countless designer stores and street side eateries offering the best of Rome. The hordes of tourists milling about the Trevi Fountain at all times meant we had to go there again and again, each time to get a better perspective.

Piazza Spagna in the evening light
I booked the Vatican City tour online with Viator and this was a real blessing. Not only was our guide Julia a font of knowledge but we also beat the never ending queues as the pre-booked tours, although expensive, gives you right of access skipping those queues. In a small group of fifteen, we were herded through metal detectors on to the Vatican Museum, the tour culminating with the visit to the Sistine Chapel. The Vatican Museum itself is a treasure trove of divine art that coined the name to this period - Renaissance - a great revival of art, literature and learning. We were constantly given dates and descriptions by Julia in her microphone, earplugs in our ears. Room after room of statues and paintings, four Raphael rooms, Michelangelo's "School of Athens", perhaps one of his lesser known works, sculptures of Bernini and other masters.

The Sistine Chapel is in the Pope's abode although we were told the present Pope Francis decided to live in less ostentatious surroundings nearby. Tourists walk in whispered awe, guides cannot speak into their microphones, no photography is allowed, it is a holy place with the work of Michelangelo sen-surrounding it completely. One has to lie spread-eagled on the floor really to view the beauty of the ceiling art. My neck hurt looking up constantly. We walked out to the bright lights and the summer heat and our tour was over. But not quite. Just next door is St. Peter's Basilica, the huge church of Vatican City. We are told this is where St. Peter the apostle was martyred during Nero's reign. The first church on this site was built by Emperor Constantine the Great and the present one dates back to the 15th century A.D. The church overlooks St. Peter's Square with an Egyptian obelisk of red granite, 25.5 m. tall brought to Italy by Emperor Caligula in the year 37 A.D. adorning the center of it. Our guide told us that the structure would snugly fit in the dome of the basilica that is how high it is! We left touring of the Colosseum and the Palatine Hills to another occasion as the heat was stifling and the ticket queues incessant. A day tour on the hop on and hop off bus without doing either gave us a perspective of Rome before we said goodbye and headed for the more pleasant climes of Tuscany.

Florence 
Florence is arguably the most beautiful city in Italy, and to my mind, the world. The panoramic view of the city from Piazzale Michelangelo is stunning. Nearby we are told lived for a period Dostoyevsky and Tchaikovsky two of the Russian giants of literature and music for inspiration. Ponte Vecchio is the house bridge. A walk along it surprises with expensive watch and jewellery shops inside the old decrepit looking houses. Piazza del Duomo is our Durbar Squares, just next to it was our hotel another great location to stay at. The cathedral Campanile di Giotto is at the centre of the Duomo. A great evening hangout for cold rose wine and Italian hors d'oeuvre to beat the summer heat!

Uffizi Gallery in Florence is the most sought after place by visitors. We went there to find an interminable queue but the touts were handy fronting as licensed guides and we got in quickly albeit with a lighter wallet. Two hours is certainly not enough to view all the masterpieces of Italian art there, nor two days, nor two weeks. We opened our mouths to gape at a Botticelli here, Leonardo da Vinci there. Works by Raphael and the young Michelangelo are also gracing the gallery. There are the elegantly sculpted busts of Roman emperors, men who were worshiped as Gods in their lifetimes, now adorning the hallways while tourists scurry past them clutching their guidebooks with the next must-see masterpiece of art in mind with nary a second glance at the gods that fell: Claudius, Hadrian, Vespasian, Titus.

Emperors Titus, Vespasian, Hadrian and Claudius
The highlight of the tour in terms of stunning beauty of the countryside started at Siena, the gateway to Tuscany, the undulating vales and dales of vineyards and the signature cypress trees. We joined an organized tour for the day and visited the quaint villages of Montalcino, Pienza and Montepulciano. Besides the timelessness of these places with their quaint alleyways we also enjoyed their wineries. A visit to these wineries offers a great insight into the business of wine making from olden days to the very modern techniques of today. And we get to taste a range of wines for free before settling to buy a few bottles that suit our palate. Our favorite was Brunello di Montalcino, wine made from brown grapes and my wife loved it and purchased a couple of bottles. I am not particularly fond of wine and I drink the odd whisky to compensate for the unsophisticated palate. Our hotel in Siena the four star Garden Hotel located just at the outskirts of the city offered us the ultimate Italian hospitality with gourmet meals, a well stocked bar and a bartender that stepped out from a thirties Hollywood movie. We had our own romance. Our trip was on a road well taken.        

 Garden Hotel in Siena

  
       

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