ciao bella italia

First, I must say, I had every intention of writing this post in March once our trip to Italy had finished, but then I landed a full-time job and finally launched a photography business, and life got so much busier then I expected! Regardless, I’m writing it now and am grateful for the time to reflect on how amazing a trip it was. Italy and my family have an official love affair. I’ve been to Italy twice with them and have taken a separate trip with Ger as well. There is something about this country that draws you in. It’s enchanting, culturally stimulating, and full of history and hidden gems.

We were greeted with an amazing sunrise over Dublin as a start to our Italian getaway (see the photo below) and took this as an omen of good things to come. And, it really was. Once we landed in Rome we checked into our hotel, took a power nap, and then headed straight for the Colosseum. Having been to Rome once before, I was so grateful to be able to walk through the Colosseum again and soak up the history of the place. Here are some quick facts for you: The Colosseum was built between 72 AD and 80 AD under the Emperor Vespasian, in the heart of ancient Rome. It’s the largest amphitheater in the world. At the height of its’ glory, it had 80 entrances and could seat approximately 50,000 spectators who would come to watch free sporting events and games. These events and games included gladiatorial combats, wild animal hunts, and more (think The Gladiator).(Pictured: Amazing view from the Colosseum looking out over Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum.)After we toured the Colosseum we headed for our first Roman dinner then back to the hotel to rest. Ger and I had both been battling sinus infections throughout the week and were absolutely wrecked!

The next day we woke up feeling incredibly refreshed and ready to take on the day in Rome. After a lovely breakfast, we headed for the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. The Roman Forum is one of my favorite places in Rome.  It’s so visually appealing and the history is so complex, it could keep you occupied for an entire day. It’s essentially a plaza surrounded by the ruins of several important government buildings at the center of what was ancient Rome. Under the Roman empire it served as a center for religious and secular ceremonies and was the site of many of the city’s temples and monuments. The Roman Senate was also housed in a building in Forum. It was for centuries the center of Roman public life: the site of processions and elections; the venue for public speeches, criminal trials, and the center of commercial affairs. Thus, the ruins contained here are truly amazing. We spent half a day exploring the Forum and walking Palatine Hill. Then, my family arrived in Rome (YAY), so we met them at the Marriott Gran Hotel Flora to re-group for the remainder of the day.After everyone was sorted at the hotel, we headed towards the Pantheon via the Spanish Steps. I think that everyone should experience the vibe at the Spanish Steps at least once. There are tons of people both sitting and standing on the steps enjoying the day and each others’ company; it’s great and feels quintessentially Italian. IMG_5973(Pictured: The view from the top of the Spanish Steps.)IMG_5975IMG_5977(Note: Dad was actually really happy to be here, he was just captured having a jet-lag moment in the photo above.)

After walking the Spanish Steps, we spotted an amazingly ornate church in a tiny little square where we decided to stop for an aperitif and some snacks before dinner. It was a great life choice. I mean, how many times are you going to be able to sit in front of a church like the one pictured below and drink Italian wine? Not often.img_9771Then, the Pantheon. What a feat of architecture. The Pantheon was originally constructed in 120 AD as a temple to all gods and is the best preserved ancient Roman monument. It is the only structure of its age and size that has successfully survived the damage of time and gravity. The most fascinating part of the Pantheon is its giant dome that remains the largest unsupported dome in the world and is in perfect proportion with the Pantheon itself. Impressive. IMG_6002After soaking up the Pantheon, we headed to Osteria da Fortunata for dinner and oh my goodness. If you are ever in Rome – go there.  It’s fresh, homemade goodness. There was cute older lady making fresh pasta right in front of us; it’s such an interesting thing to watch and one of my life goals, being able to make decent homemade pasta. As far as food goes, we had an antipasti plate and local fried vegetables to share and I had amazing spaghetti alla carbonara for my main. I don’t lie when I say mouth still waters thinking about it. After dinner we headed to the Trevi Fountain, another must-do when in Rome.  I mean, look at it, it’s a beaut. Fun facts: the Trevi Fountain was completed in 1792 and is the largest Baroque fountain in Rome, standing at 86 ft high and 161 ft wide. And, it’s alleged that if you throw three coins into the Trevi Fountain, the first coin guarantees your return to Rome, the second will ensure a new romance, and the third will ensure marriage. It worked for me, so who knows! The next day, we were off to Naples for a day tour of the Amalfi Coast & Pompeii. I’ll write a separate blog  post about this as it was such a beautiful day, it deserves its own.

Our last morning in Rome we headed to the Vatican. Ger had never been, and my brother (Colin), sister (Chelsea), and I were happy to go again. We started the day with a great breakfast at the Marriott Gran Flora accompanied with a lovely view of the city and its the old city walls.  #winningNow, did you know that Vatican City is the smallest country in the world? It’s still amazing to me that I’ve been able to visit it twice in one lifetime. Once we arrived at Vatican City,  we visited the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel. You aren’t permitted to take photos in the Sistine Chapel, so only the memories and a postcard exist for me ;). Next, it was into St. Peter’s Basilica. Being one of the largest churches in the world – it is amazing to spend time in there. Another interesting fact: St Peter’s Basilica was built on the burial site of St. Peter, one of Christ’s apostles. And, in 1626 the church was reconsecrated, 1300 years after the first church had been consecrated on Vatican Hill.IMG_6227.JPG(Pictured: Chelsea and I in St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City.)IMG_0227(Pictured: Beautiful spiral stairway in the Vatican Museums, and yes, those stairs play tricks on your eyes as you are walking down them.)IMG_0211(Pictured: The beautiful long hall that sets the tone for The Sistine Chapel.)


(Not Pictured: The Sistine Chapel.)(Pictured: The inside of St. Peter’s Basilica.)(Pictured: Michelangelo’s Pieta – the only piece of work he ever signed).IMG_0251(Pictured: Close-up of the alter of St. Peter’s Basilica.)



On our taxi ride back to the hotel, we got a great view of Capitoline Hill (pictured below). Then, we caught a train to Florence to start our next phase of the Italian adventure. 

Once we arrived in Florence, we checked in Monte Oliveto, our B&B for the week, and met the owner, Donatella. She gave us fabulous suggestions for local restaurants and things to do around town and made our time truly amazing in Florence. I would highly recommend staying at her B&B if you ever have the chance.

After we got settled, we headed to ‘O Munaciello for dinner.  Y’all, I have had some wonderful wood-fired pizza in my time, but, this place took the cake. Delectable. And the truffle oil, just stop. After dinner, we had some wine back at the B&B and then headed to bed as we had an early morning wake-up call for a trip to Cinque Terre and Pisa. This trip will have it’s own blog post as it was an incredible day worthy of its own spotlight.For the start of our first full day in Florence, we headed straight to the Galleria Dell’ Accademia di Firenze to view Michelangelo’s David. For those who don’t know, David is a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture. It was created between 1501 and 1504 by the Italian artist Michelangelo. David, pictured below, is considered by some to be a perfectly proportioned marble male nude.After we finished at the Accademia, we made our way to SE.STO on Arno (a restaurant at The Westin Excelsior) for lunch.  It was recommended by Donatella for the views of Florence alone, and they did not disappoint.IMG_6578IMG_6607(Pictured: The views from inside SE.STO on Arno.)(Pictured: My lunch of fried artichoke and breaded pork accompanied with a tasty glass of red.)(Pictured above and below: The views from the patio of on SE.STO on Arno.)After lunch, we were off to Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore to climb the Bell Tower. I didn’t make it that far up because enclosed spaces mixed with stairs equals me hyperventilating and freezing with fear. So, I waited at the first level while everyone else climbed.  Even on the first level, the views were stunning.  I’ve included a photo Ger took from the top, so you can get an idea of what the views are like there too. (Pictured: Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore.)(Pictured: The view of the Duomo of Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore from the first level of the Bell Tower.) IMG_0816(Pictured above and below: Views of Florence from the first level of the Bell Tower.)IMG_0806IMG_6625(Pictured: Ger’s view from the top of the Bell Tower. So beautiful.)

From the Bell Tower, we headed to Palazzo Vecchio. Built in 1314, this building still services as Florence’s City Hall as well as a museum. It also features in a famous scene from Hannibal. We enjoyed some aperitif’s in a cafe across the way, then walked to the Ponte Vecchio to catch the sunset.img_0876After sunset, we went for dinner at a neighborhood joint, Alla Vecchia Bettola. Being a Michelin Guide restaurant, the food was so good I forgot to take photos. But, the one I did capture is below.  Please excuse the mid-bite capture, haha!The next day, we had a lovely homemade breakfast at our B&B prepared by Donatella (she did this every morning; I was just feeling sentimental as this was our last one, so I snapped a photo) and then headed to Tuscany to spend the morning at Castello di Gabbiano for a wine tasting and a walk among the vines.(Pictured: The backyard and patio at Monte Oliveto i.e. the view at breakfast.)

Upon reaching Castello di Gabbiano, we had a brief tour of the vineyard, wine cellar, and the estate. Then ensued an amazing Tuscan wine tasting. We enjoyed every bit of it and I am so completely bummed they don’t sell any of their products in Ireland. My family and I loved the wine so much that we stocked up on wine to drink back at the B&B and had boxes shipped to the states accordingly.  Then, we returned to Florence, opened up a couple of bottles, and started up a game of Euchre (the family loves this card game). This kept us occupied for the afternoon. (Pictured: A small bit of the vineyard at Castello di Gabbiano.)IMG_1012(Pictured: The road that leads to as many olives as your heart desires.)IMG_6680(Pictured: An olive wagon waiting to be hitched.)(Pictured above and below: The wine cellar at Castello di Gabbiano.)IMG_1010(Pictured above and below: Castello di Gabbiano i.e. the castle.)IMG_6700IMG_6677(Pictured: More of the estate and the wine tasting building. #charming)In the evening, we walked into town for our last Florentine dinner at Buca Lapi (a Florentine steakhouse) to belatedly celebrate my parents’ 30th wedding anniversary. It was a friggin’ amazing meal. If ever in Florence, go there. We had tomato bruschetta to start, I had sage and butter gnocchi for my primi, and stewed beef over polenta for my secondi (accompanied by the house red of course). Good gawd it was tasty. For dessert, we got gelato (as you do) from the best gelateria in Florence according to Donatella – GROM. I haven’t had better. Go there too. I realize I’m saying that a lot, but, there are so many outstanding places to eat in Italy, I can’t help it. 😉The next morning, after a send-off from Donatella, we were off on a train to Venice for the next part of our Italian adventure. I love Venice. This was my second trip there and if it wasn’t legit sinking, we’d consider retiring there.  It’s such a unique place.

Upon arrival in Venice, we checked in to Hotel San Cassiano Ca Favretto (part of the lobby was flooded due to high tide which is a totally normal occurrence here), had a cappuccino and some pastries while soaking up the Grand Canal views, then wandered to San Polo market. IMG_1244IMG_1252San Polo Market is an open air market that local Venetians go to for their grocery needs. The produce as well as the locally sourced seafood is top-notch.  It was great to watch the locals interact with the vendors; they know what they want and at what price. The Rialto Bridge was the next stop.  The view of the Grand Canal is perfect from up there. I would highly recommend stopping here and soaking up the ambiance of the place if you’re ever in Venice. Random note: You can tell it’s still high tide because the walkway of building on the left-side of the photo below is covered in water. We eventually found ourselves in San Marco Square, which was totally flooded due to high tide. So, we bought a touristy version of water shoes (picture below) and waded thru the water to get a closer look at Saint Mark’s Basilica and Dodges Palace. What captivating pieces of architecture. Truly something. IMG_1312IMG_1325 (1)(Pictured: The flooded entrance to St. Mark’s Basilica.)IMG_6764IMG_6767IMG_6791(Pictured: Doges Palace.)IMG_6784(Pictured: San Marco Square with St. Mark’s Basilica front and center.)

After a bit of a walk around, we hopped on a private boat tour of the Venice canals. What a wonderful experience, utterly unique to Venice. We loved this part of the day!IMG_6889(Pictured: View of Doges Palace from the water.)(Pictured: View of Rialto Bridge from the Grand Canal.)(Pictured: A temporary installation titled Support by Italian sculptor Lorenzo Quinn meant to highlight the threat of rising sea levels and the impact this has on cities such as Venice.)

Once back at the hotel, we tucked in to some Prosecco and beer on the patio at the front of the hotel and watched the water buses, water taxis, and boats cruise along on the Grand Canal. We did make our way to dinner eventually and closed out the night watching nighttime pass on the Grand Canal; kind of romantic in a way. #wheninveniceThe next morning, we caught a water taxi to the train station to catch the train to Milan, the final part of our Italian adventure. The trip was coming to an end and we were all getting a bit emotional. Living an ocean away from family can be really tough sometimes, won’t lie. The weather reflected our sentiments exactly.

Our last full day in Italy would be spent in Milan. We started the day off with a walk through the Piazza del Duomo to ogle at the Duomo di Milano – WOW. Fun facts about the Duomo di Milano: It took nearly 6 centuries to complete, is the second largest church in Italy next to St. Peters Basilica in Rome, and there are more statues on this building than any other in the world, 3159 in total. It’s said that if the statues were placed on top of each other, they would reach a height 3.3 miles.

We then made our way into the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. Talk about glamorous: Prada, Versace, Louis Vuitton and more are easily found there. The gorgeous architecture is very easy on the eyes as well. Then, we popped into a restaurant in the Galleria for lunch and  I had my first homemade risotto Milano, it was so comforting. I want to attempt the recipe on a rainy day in Dublin and see what happens. 😉After lunch, we were off to have yet another once in a lifetime moment; we got to view Leonardo Di Vinci’s, The Last Supper. The precautions taken to preserve this 15th century masterpiece are something else (as they should be). The humidity and room temperature are closely regulated. As such, only a certain number of people are allowed in the room where the mural painting is housed. Once that group of people leave, the room is brought back to the appropriate standards before the next group can come in and so on and so forth.  Thus, the glass box we are waiting in pictured below. (Pictured: Leonardo Da Vinci’s, The Last Supper.)(Pictured: Santa Maria delle Grazie – the church that houses Da Vinci’s, The Last Supper.)

Next stop was the Castello Sforzesco di Milano, the home to Leonardo Da Vinci’s last and unfinished work, the Rondanini Pieta as well as a former castle to the Dukes of Milan. After walking the castle grounds, we stopped in to Il Panino Guisto to try a famous Milanese panino for dinner. I had a Michelin chef creation – Milano 2015 Di Claudio Sadler – and it did not disappoint. After dinner we had one more dose of gelato from Bianco Latte (go there and get gelato in Milan if you ever have the chance). It was a perfect way to top off the night. (Pictured: Castello Sforzesco di Milano.)The next morning, the family left early for their flights back to the states and Ger and I had most of the day in Milan before our flight back to Dublin. So, we enjoyed a sleep-in and then made our way into town for a lunch of veggie bruschetta and pizza Margherita because, why not? 😉  After lunch, we explored a bit and made our way to Santa Maria presso San Satiro, a church that has a famous optical illusion: a false apse attributed to Donato Bramante. From there, we found a funky little cafe where we settled in for a cappuccino, people-watching, and a snack before heading to the airport.

(Pictured: Santa Maria presso San Satiro: Optical illusion, or no?)All-in-all, it was a dream trip to Italy. I love the country so much and experiencing it with my family made it all the more special.  It was very hard to say goodbye to both my family and Italy but, Ger and I have a feeling we will be back. And, we get to see the entire family again in November, so we have that to look forward too. On that note,  Joshua Tree, California, we’re coming for ya! 🙂 Until next time, arrivederci!

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