First Encounter with The ‘Boot’
Italy (or ‘Italia’ in Italian) also often goes by the moniker of ‘The Boot’, ascribed by the physical shape of the country. Me thinks this endearing nickname is rather befitting for a soccer-crazed nation like Italy.
We landed at Rome Fiumicino Airport on a rather special day – 8 Apr 2005, which was incidentally late Pope John Paul II’s day of funeral. Rome was swarmed with multitudes of pilgrims who, together with numerous heads of state and dignitaries, were making their way to Vatican City to pay their last respects to a much-loved and well-respected leader of the worldwide Catholic Church. While I am not entirely certain if that day was declared a public holiday in Rome, it was a futile effort trying to proceed with our tour itinerary (for Rome itself) because several iconic landmarks including The Colosseum and The Pantheon were closed to the public as outward signs of respect. Vatican City, where the funeral was taking place, was also out of bounds to commoners like us.
Pilgrims and locals alike were watching the funeral mass on many of the mobile TV screens we saw set up all over Rome. As a result, it became exceedingly inconvenient for the coach to move around in the city due to the crowdedness. That was when our tour leader opted for us to travel on foot instead. I weren’t upset with the sudden turn of events (not that anything would change if I were), for how many people could actually boast that they were in Rome on such a day of significance? To witness the populace being moved and touched by the passing of a great spiritual leader was… a very sobering reminder that we all could, and should endeavour to continue doing good in our lives.
After the obligatory photo stops at the few famous landmarks including The Colosseum, Fontana di Trevi and The Pantheon, we were very much left to our own devices in the vicinity of Spanish Steps. It started raining intermittently, which dampened our moods considerably. The mister and I explored the area a little, and after throwing perfunctory glances at the upmarket designer stores and restaurants, we decided to seek refuge (from the rain and the maddening crowd who were out and about in throngs after the funeral mass ended) at the McDonald’s outlet near the steps till it was time for the group to reassemble.
The rest of the day spent in Rome was rather nondescript and uneventful. We were still feeling rather jet-lagged and sleepy (no thanks to the great selection of movies available on Singapore Airlines, I hardly slept on the red-eye flight) hence the decision to have an early night.
The second day started early (and this is to be expected for most package tours) as we were leaving Rome for Florence. After a forgettable breakfast at the hotel, we were all raring to go.
On the way to Florence, we made a short 3-hour stop at Pisa. Ah, Pisa… who isn’t fascinated with the leaning tower located at Piazza dei Miracoli (or ‘Square of Miracles’)? The evil Superman in the 3rd installation of the same-titled series of movies introduced me to the Leaning Tower of Pisa when I was but a young lass barely of schooling age. I remember being extremely puzzled by the existence of a tilting building in the world, and following my parents around, questioning them incessantly in an attempt to satisfy my inquisitive young mind. ‘Does it really exist? Why didn’t it topple over? Why didn’t they tear it down and rebuild it? Is anyone living in the building?’ I swear I went on and on about it, but back then the parents were not equipped with the requisite knowledge to explain things adequately to appease me. I too, moved on to obsess over other stuff.
Later on in life, I went to college, majored in civil & structural engineering, and learnt all about foundation and soil consolidation. Admittedly, foundation engineering was not one of my favourite topics, but it sure did answer my questions, albeit almost 2 decades late.
Unlike the other tourists who were attempting to take shots with the tower in all poses conceivable, I was busy reading about the ongoing restoration works, which demanded my assiduous concentration. My professors at college would have been proud of me, for I was about the only person in the vicinity who was interested! The mister was understandably more than pleased to accompany me in my pursuit to satisfy my insatiable thirst for knowledge, for he is as camera-shy as I am otherwise shutter-happy.
It was slightly past mid-afternoon by the time we finally arrived in Florence. Florence, arguably the grand old dame of the Renaissance movement, is one classy lady. We were whisked off the coach at Piazzale Michelangelo (or ‘Michelangelo Park’) located up on a hill where we saw a replica of ‘David’ and a magnificent panoramic view of Florence. The view which greeted us was breathtaking, both literally and figuratively – the ambient temperature of the piazzale had noticeably dropped with the drizzle and setting sun, which resulted in my nose turning numb from the cold. Each breath I took was becoming a rather laborious effort and though I enjoyed the view, I couldn’t wait to hide out in our coach.
Piazza del Duomo, where Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (more commonly known as ‘Duomo of Florence’) is sited, is a must-visit and was where we found ourselves next. The piazza, located in the heart of the historical centre of Florence, is one of most visited places in Europe. The exterior facade of the basilica is lined with marble panels in various shades of green and pink bordered by white, resulting in a very, for lack of a better word, attractive neo-gothic exterior. Not everyone thought the same though – to some, the facade appeared to have been excessively decorated.
Opposite at the piazza, we saw the great east gates of the Florence Baptistery, more commonly referred to as the Gates of Paradise, a term coined by Michelangelo the maestro himself, comprising 10 panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament. Lorenzo Ghiberti, the sculptor of the 10 panels himself admitted that they were “the most singular work that I have ever made”. Although the panels that are mounted on the east doors now are mere copies (the originals are carefully restored and kept in a dry environment), the remarkable beauty and grandeur of the original works shone even through their replicas.
After a long day on the roads, we again turned in early after yet another nondescript dinner.