Essence of Italy
Explore the country renowned for art, architecture and magnificent churches

By Marge Peterson
Published: Jan/Feb 2001

The remains of the Roman Forum, which served as the religious, political and commercial center of ancient Rome. /Italian Government Travel Office photo
“Lump the whole thing! Say that the Creator made Italy from designs by Michelangelo.”
–Mark Twain

According to tradition, visitors toss coins into Rome’s magnificent Trevi Fountain to ensure a return trip. I threw mine with gusto because in only a week, the country had captured my heart. I wasn’t alone. On the last days of Trafalgar’s eight-day Italian Holiday tour of Rome, Venice, Florence and the Italian Lakes area, most everyone on the motorcoach was planning their next visit to Italy.

We saw a cleaner Rome than visitors have seen in the past. To prepare for Jubilee 2000, the official holy year declared by Pope John Paul II, monuments, museums and churches were spiffed up. Decades of grime were scrubbed off St. Peter’s Basilica. Most of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, except for one small corner, was restored.

Visitors this year will be able to see the spruced up city but won’t have to deal with 30 million pilgrims who visited the Eternal City last year. Trafalgar’s tour included these major highlights:

Vatican City

St. Peter’s Basilica took 176 years to complete. I felt dwarfed by the size of the church, awed by the beauty of the architecture and art, and frustrated by my inability to see everything in one visit. Of special significance are the dome, designed by Michelangelo near the end of his life; Michelangelo’s “Pietà,” one of the artist’s early works; and Bernini’s 13th-century bronze statue of St. Peter, his right foot worn away by pilgrims’ touches.

Behind the basilica is the Vatican Museum with a dozen self-contained museums in 1,400 rooms. If you are on a schedule, take a tour to see the highlights.

The Sistine Chapel was awe-inspiring. Michelangelo painted the ceiling between 1508 and 1512, crouching for hours on scaffolding. The artwork underwent a thorough (and controversial) cleaning in the 1980s and 1990s. Soot, as well as some garments that popes had ordered painted on scantily clad biblical figures, were stripped off.

Historic Rome

The Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome was designed by Michelangelo, with the square framed by three palaces and a balustrade with statues. The famed artist also installed the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in the center of the square. /Italian Government Tourist Office photo
Other highlights included the Colosseum, one of the greatest marvels of Roman civilization, which was built in A.D. 72–80. Spectators, who were seated according to their social status, watched Christians, gladiators, mismatched combatants and wild animals fight each other to the death. The arena also was used to stage mock sea battles.

Nearby, the Roman Forum, now an area of tumbled down columns and buildings, was the heart of the empire. The city’s important political, legal and religious buildings were there.
Our second night in Rome began with an evening stroll along the Via Condotti to the famed Spanish Steps in Rome’s most fashionable shopping area, the Piazza di Spagna. In the film “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow met there.


On a disappointing gondola ride, five of us, all holding umbrellas in the driving rain, were crammed into the boat with a gondolier that didn’t sing. Fortunately, the gondolier just ahead had a beautiful, strong voice that filled the whole canal, which was lined with historical palaces. We also toured a traditional glass-blowing factory, shopped at specialty shops and from street vendors.

Venice inspired one of our tour group members, Dino Sistilli, an artist and sculptor from Woodbury, N.J.

“As an artist, I wanted to see Venice so I could use it as a painting subject,” he said. “I also wanted to see the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s and Michelangelo’s ‘David.’ They were incredible.”

While many tour members stayed in Venice, more than half took an optional cruise to Burano, one of the Venezia Islands in the lagoon north of Venice. Burano, once a great lace-making center, is a photographer’s paradise with its brightly painted houses and the leaning tower of San Martino Church.

This lovely island has no hotels, no automobiles and no stress. Instead, visitors find charming sidewalk cafes, friendly people and shops with great prices. Mary and Sara von Behren, a mother and daughter from Madison, Wis., loved shopping in Burano.

“It’s so much easier on a tour. We’d never have known about this island if we had come on our own,” Sara von Behren said.

Michelangelo’s Florence

Florence was at the heart of the artistic movement that swept Europe from the late 13th to the early 16th century. The best way to see this city and its attractions is on foot.

The two churches we visited, the Duomo (cathedral) and Santa Croce (Holy Cross), were very different. The cathedral, begun in 1296, has an extravagant facade and a massive dome by Brunelleschi but the interior is simple. Santa Croce is plain on the outside but contains beautiful early frescoes telling the story of the holy cross. Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Galileo are buried in the church.

The Academy Gallery houses an important collection of Michelangelo’s sculptures, including “David,” one of the world’s most famous statues.

We shopped in an area near Santa Croce and visited the Ponte Vecchio, the most photographed bridge in Florence. Tiny shops cling to its sides.

On our last night in Rome, we ate at a fine Italian restaurant while being entertained by Italian tenors. After a stop at the Trevi Fountain for the customary coin toss, it was farewell to Italy.

Marge Peterson is managing editor for AAA “Home and Away” magazine.

Before you go

Plan to spend approximately $60 a day for optional excursions.

Beware of pickpockets in the cities. Carry valuables in a money belt or security pouch. Carry shoulder bags and cameras slung across your body.

Sightseeing in the large cities requires a lot of walking. Bring comfortable shoes and get in shape.

Trafalgar’s Italian Holiday land tour starts at $799, or $1,484 with air included. A Winter Breaks Tour with a similar itinerary is offered through March for $499 (land only). Trafalgar also offers 12- 14- and 16-day tours of Italy. See your AAA Travel agent for more details.

Contents may not be reproduced in whole or in part unless expressly authorized in writing by AAA Traveler Magazines.