Our Grand Tour: Piazza della Signoria

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Palazzo Vecchio.

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Piazza della Signoria.

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Time for Gelato.

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Our Grand Tour: Piazza della Signoria

Our Grand Tour: Piazzale Michelangelo

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TBH had booked an open-topped bus tour, which was not only a good way to get a look around the city, but also took us up the adjacent hillside to the Piazzale Michelangelo.

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From there the views – of the city and its landmarks, of the River Arno and of the surrounding Tuscan hills – were superb.

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Michelangelo was raised (but not born) in Florence. The square contains marble copies of some of his sculptures, most obviously of David.

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If you’re on a flying visit to Florence then the view from here is a great place to start.

Our Grand Tour: Piazzale Michelangelo

Our Grand Tour: Put Out the Flags

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After Civitavecchia and Roma: Livorno and Firenze. Or Florence, if you’re the kind of ignoramus who can sit on a coach and wonder why all the road signs refer to the former and not the latter, as I did. It was another day of clear skies and sunshine. Possibly even hotter than the previous day, although the mostly shady streets of Florence were pleasantly cool.

From the coach we’d seen the Alps, with white topped peaks which I would have assumed were snow-capped if we hadn’t been told that in fact what we could see was Italian marble in the mountains.

No sooner had we arrived in the centre of Florence than we were met by mounted policewomen, a marching band…

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Costumed burghers of the city…

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…and a banner waving parade.

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Nice of the locals to make an effort!

Our Grand Tour: Put Out the Flags

Our Grand Tour – Strolling through Rome

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The Arch of Constantine.

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Caesar Augustus.

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After the Colosseum we still had much to see in Rome. Far too much in fact for a single day. As much as I liked the area around Naples and (spoiler alert) Florence, I think the one place I’d really like to return to is Rome. I was impressed.

There seemed to be Roman remains, including what looked like recent or current excavations almost everywhere.

Not everything is so old however. This towering wedding cake…

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…the Altare della Patria (Altar of the fatherland) was only finished in 1925. It’s a monument to Victor Emmanuel II the first king of a unified Italy.  Is it me, or does it smack of the fascism which was to come? (Easy to read that in to it with hindsight I suppose.)

Not surprisingly, the city was busy with tourists, but one spot was particularly thronged…

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The Trevi Fountain…

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…which has recently been cleaned up and is even more shining white than the Altare della Patria.

Rome of course, is not a port. TBH had booked a bus transfer from Civitavecchia where the ship was docked and we had been dropped near to the Colosseum. We were scheduled to meet the tour guide again in St. Peter’s Square, but realised that our projected wander through Rome was going to take too long, so took a taxi directly to the Vatican Museum.

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Fortunately, TBH had also booked tickets in advance for the museum which meant that we avoided a very long queue and were able to enter swiftly. Advance booking at the Colosseum was not so effective, but at least meant that we only had to queue once, for the security checks, and not for tickets as well.

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The tour guide had warned us that we would have to hurry around the Vatican museum if we wanted to reach the Sistine Chapel, see the Basilica of St. Peter’s and make it to the rendezvous. The museum was very busy. I shall remember it for its long corridors lavishly decorated with paintings, tapestries, mosaics and sculptures.

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I got the distinct impression that you could spend a lifetime here without seeing all that it contains.

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I was particularly taken with this corridor, The Gallery of Maps, where the walls were painted with huge maps of Italy. If anything, I’m even more impressed now that I know that these frescoes were painted between 1580 and 1583.

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It’s not permitted to take photos in the Sistine Chapel (although, of course, people were). I’d heard that the chapel is much smaller than you would expect, so of course, was then surprised that it wasn’t smaller than it actually was. I didn’t know quite what to make of it. I think I preferred the Gallery of Maps.

“When you leave the Sistine Chapel there are two exits. To the right takes you back to the entrance of the museum, which means a long walk back to St. Peter’s Square and then a  queue for another security check before you can enter the Basilica. You don’t have time for that. The exit to the right has a sign which says ‘Groups Only’. It doesn’t mean that. Everybody ignores it. You must take this door and it will take you straight into the Basilica.”

Being English, practically addicted to queueing and temperamentally programmed to obey all notices, by-laws, officials, signage etc. I found it difficult to brazenly walk past the ‘Groups Only’ sign. But we did, and this turned out to be a sterling piece of advice.

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St. Peter’s is huge. I tried taking panoramic shots to try to do it justice, but in the resulting  photos the pillars all seem to be leaning dizzily at crazy angles.

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Here’s A outside St. Peter’s. Another point to bear in mind: in many Catholic churches bare knees and shoulders are frowned upon. TBH and A often carried a sarong or two to wear over their shorts – A is modelling one here – otherwise they wouldn’t have got in.

Such was the speed with which we had raced around the Vatican Museum, we now found that we still had a little time to spare. Enough to wander down to the Castel Sant’Angelo…

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…by the Tiber.

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Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II

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Ponte Sant’Angelo

Then back to St. Peter’s Square with a gelato to round off our whistle-stop tour.

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Apparently, October is the best time to visit Rome. I shan’t be there this October, but maybe one day soon…

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Our Grand Tour – Strolling through Rome

Our Grand Tour – The Colosseum

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How would you expect to find the Colosseum in the middle of summer? Thronged with tourists, but awesome none-the-less?

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That was my impression anyway. I’ve read that it seated around 50,000 and it is certainly huge.

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The wooden platform on the right shows the level of the ancient arena. The rooms below were holding-pens for animals and rooms for the use of gladiators.

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The skull of (if I remember correctly) a bear, presumably slaughtered in the arena.

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Obviously, the Colosseum has a grisly history, but the sheer scale of what remains is breath-taking.

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Our Grand Tour – The Colosseum

Our Grand Tour – Pompeii

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From Vesuvius the obvious next stop would be Pompeii and that’s where we headed next. Our stop was all too brief, and the main thing I took away was that I’d really like to visit again and do it properly.

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We didn’t really scratch the surface, but even so I took a huge number of photos.

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Mary Beard recommends 10 ‘must visit’ locations within the city, but we only made it to a couple of those. These photos are from one, ‘The House of the Marine Venus’, now known for the fresco shown below.

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It was clear that some buildings are currently under reconstruction, and I know that many have been rebuilt in the past, not least after Allied bombing during the Second World War. Some paintings too, have been, in Beard’s words – ‘aggressively restored’ – it would be interesting to know to what extent the paintings we admired actually dated back to before the eruption of AD79.

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Some of Pompeii’s famous stepping-stones. Apparently the streets were often flooded and probably always filled with litter and worse. The stones may also have served to partially restrict access by horse drawn carts to certain important streets.

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Beard suggests that the presence of numerous disembodied faces and hands may be because they belonged to statues which were principally wooden and which did not survive the heat of the volcanic explosion.

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Although I was disappointed by our short stay at Pompeii, the feeling was tempered by the knowledge that I would spend the afternoon in Naples’ National Archeological Museum which holds many of the paintings, mosaics and best finds from Pompeii and Herculaneum. I would that is, were it open on Tuesdays. Ho-hum.

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A statue found by the (locked) doors of the Naples Archeological Museum.

Our Grand Tour – Pompeii

Our Grand Tour – Vesuvius

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On the docks at Naples we were met by a taxi, which TBH had booked whilst we were still at home. The driver, whose name, sadly, I didn’t write down and have therefore forgotten, was a brilliant guide to the area. He drove us to the end of the road on Vesuvius, managing to get us there before most of the other day-trippers so that we only met large crowds as we were descending again.

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Although the hillside was rough and rocky, the volcanic soil is apparently very rich and there was an abundance of flowers, and also lots of lizards and hosts of butterflies. I think that theses lizards are the same species of Common or Viviparous lizards which we sometimes see at home, although they were, I suspect, not necessarily more common here, just easier to see in the absence of grass. Certainly, like the ones at home, some of these had shed their tails – no doubt to escape from a tight spot – and were now regenerating a replacement.

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About the butterflies, I ‘m afraid I’m clueless – although I have seen a secondhand copy of ‘Collins Mediterranean Wildlife’ in the Oxfam bookshop, and if it’s still there when I go back I’ll make that my next purchase and have a go at identifying at least the ones I managed to photograph, which is only a small sample of the butterflies which were flying from bloom to bloom.

Although it was a hazy day, it was still possible to get an idea of just how big a city Naples is from the rim of the crater on Vesuvius. Italy’s third biggest city, after Rome and Milan, it has a population of around 3 million (making it bigger, for comparisons sake, than the conurbation around Liverpool). All this from our driver/guide – apart from the bit about Liverpool – he seemed genuinely proud of his home town and was a fount of knowledge about the city’s history and the history of volcanic activity in the area.

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Sorrento peninsula, part of Capri on the right (rather lost in the haze).

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The crater was so large, that it was difficult to capture a representative image from the rim, even with the panoramic facility. (You’ll notice that we were all wearing sandals, which is not recommended – the path is floored with a volcanic gravel and descending in sandals proved to be an uncomfortable affair).

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Vesuvius is still active and in a couple of places in the wall of the crater smoke was venting…

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Our Grand Tour – Vesuvius

Our Grand Tour – A Day at Sea

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The first day of our cruise was spent at sea. Whilst the rest of the family opted for the delights of Deck 15 (pool, slides, bars, sun-loungers, hoards of other holiday-makers) I spent most of the day in my favourite spot on the boat.

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Our balcony.

I got through lots of books on our trip. Two of them had the same title, this…

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…is Mary Beard’s history, which I was reading for research purposes, as opposed to Robert Harris’s historical thriller. Can you guess the shared title?

Looking at a map of the Mediterranean, I think we must have passed through the Strait of Bonifacio, and since our room was on the Starboard side, I think that this…

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…must be the coast of Sardinia.

B spotted Dolphins, but I wasn’t with him and so missed them. Unlike the huge crowd of people who were in the huge cafeteria style restaurant when he announced he’d seen them, and crowded behind him and his siblings at the windows, which I think was a bit disconcerting for them.

I did spot something leaping out of the water that day, but I’m not sure that they were dolphins, they were quite some distance off and looked too pale to be dolphins. Fortunately, on the last day of the cruise I finally saw some dolphins breaching and was able to watch them for a while.

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Our Grand Tour – A Day at Sea