Italy: Five Cities, Five Sites
We’ll be talking about our favorite cities in Italy this week, and boy do we have a lot to choose from! Of course we love the countryside of Italy, from the rolling hills of Tuscany to the vineyards of Piedmont, from the mountains of Abruzzo to the seaside of Sardinia. But today it’s all about the cities, and we’ve chosen five of our favorite sites in five of our favorite cities to get us started.
How can you pick just one favorite site in Rome? For me it is almost impossible. I lived for several years in Rome and it is perhaps my favorite destination not only in Italy but in the world. But if I had choose one thing to see, I would say the Pantheon. True, the Colosseum is more known, the Vatican is more grand. But there is just something about the Pantheon. Begun during the reign of Augustus and complete during the reign of Hadrian, it still boasts after almost two thousand years the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. In the center of the cupola is a round opening which lets in both light and rain. It was made into a church, which was a major factor in preserving it. The floor is sightly convex, to allow the rain water to drain off. There is nothing quite like standing in the middle of it on a rainy day, the rays of light and rain streaming in from the great oculus onto the marble below. Inside you’ll find the graves of the first King of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II, his son King Umberto I and his wife Queen Margherita. You’ll also find the grave of Raphael. Stand in front of the monumental testament to human initiative and read the inscription: Marcus Agrippa Lucii filius consul tertium fecit.
Palermo during certain hours is like a sea of humanity pouring down the sidewalks and streets, a bustling place full of traffic, noise, and commotion – all of it wonderfully Sicilian! Tucked into this hubhub is the Vucciria market, one of the oldest open-air markets in Sicily. I have heard that it has faded from former years, when it was even more packed with food stalls and fish mongers, before the age of mass-produced plastic souvenirs changed the aesthetics of Europe’s markets. Still, located as it is in the heart of the old town center and near the port, it offers plenty to see, hear, and experience (not to mention to eat!). There is even an expression in Sicilian, “Quannu e balati ra Vucciria s’asciuccanu,” or “when the streets of the Vucciria become dry” (the pavement is constantly wetted by the fish mongers): basically, “when hell freezes over!”
Naples has many amazing sites – not least of which is the traffic! But my favorite is the National Archeological Museum, one of the most respected archeological sites in the world. It houses many artifacts from the nearby ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, including extensive statuary and mosaics (such as the stunning mosaic depicting the battle between Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia), as well as the famed carbonized papyri recovered from Herculaneum. Also of note: the “Secret Cabinet,” which houses many erotic (some would say pornographic) items retrieved from Pompeii and Herculaneum, and access to which was historically limited (you still have to be 14 years old to enter without an adult).
Piazza del Duomo. I struggled with this one too. Should I choose the Palazzo Pitti, one of my favorite museums? The Boboli Gardens? In the end, it is the Piazza del Duomo. Florence is an amazingly medieval city. One of the things that makes it so aesthetically pleasing is that the buildings are so uniform in height and design – true to the medieval character thanks to the stringent city ordinances with the city center.This make the Duomo all the more breathtaking. When you are stating on the Piazzale Michelangelo or on Monte San Miniato overlooking the city, there is no missing Brunelleschi’s amazing cupola. It thrusts up like a white and pastel beacon in the middle of the city scape. But when walking around maze of narrow streets in the city center, you don’t see it until you come upon it, and then it is turning a corner into fairyland, in which you are faced with an awe-inspiring, colorful, gracefully whimsical building that dwarfs anything around it.
Bari vecchia. Simply translate, the “old Bari” is Italy par excellence, or what most people think when conjuring an idea of this wonderful land. Like walking onto a Neo-Realist movie set, you still find a labyrinth of streets with their doors flung open, housewives making hand-made pasta to sell to the local restaurants. It’s hard to believe it’s real, but there they are: surly, friendly, boisterous Italian signore staring back at you as you wander the streets.
What about Milan, Turin, Bologna, Venice, and Catania? Those will have to wait for another day!
What are your favorite sites to see in the cities above? We’d love to hear your thoughts.
By Peg Kern
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