Things to Do

Certain mental pictures rise before the collector of memories at the simple mention, written or spoken, of the places he has loved.

— Henry James, Italian Hours

Top 10 lists are necessarily selective. They are also intensely personal. Mine reflect my own interests and biases, but with that caveat in mind I gladly offer them here—one at a time over the next few months—in the hope that it will inspire others to visit Europe and create memories of their own.

Top 10 Things to Do in Rome, Italy

Top 10 Things to Do in Rome, Italy

In writing to a friend while on “The Grand Tour” of Europe in 1870, a young graduate of Harvard University named Roger Swaim, lamented his arrival in Rome. He had been to France already and would later continue on to Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the Holy Lands, but not before making a thorough visit of all the conventional sites—the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican—and he was not looking forward to it. “Oh dear! Here is this awful task of Rome on my hands, a mass of brick to investigate [and] excavations to penetrate.” Exhausted and overwhelmed, he felt that he should only “appreciate Rome after getting away,” for it would take time to forget its “filth and discomforts.”

For travelers today, it’s still possible to experience the grittiness of Swain’s Rome, but it’s just as easy to conjure the magnificence of a city built by emperors like Titus and Hadrian, or to bask in the Baroque splendor of art created by the hands of Caravaggio and Bernini. Rome is ever evolving and pulsing with the energy of history and human emotion. It is, after all, the Eternal City, and there is always more than enough to see. Here, though, is a short list that begins to scratch the surface. By the end of your stay, you will want to return time and again to excavate its many layers.


An interactive map of the sites recommended in this article:

#10

Climb the Capitoline Hill and gaze out across the ruins of ancient Rome

The city of Rome was built upon seven ancient hills—the Aventine, Caelian, Capitoline, Esquiline, Palatine, Quirinal, and Viminal. Begin your visit at the Capitoline Hill at a treacherous intersection of streets near Piazza Venezia. To the right of the massive Vittorio Emanuele II monument, variously derided as a “wedding cake” or a “giant typewriter,” climb the cordonata, a set of long sloping steps that lead the Piazza del Campidoglio, where an impressive equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius dominates the space. What you see is a copy of the bronze original, which can be viewed in the adjacent Capitoline Museum, a meandering collection of galleries housed in the Renaissance palaces that surround the square. It’s well worth an entire afternoon’s visit, but for now, continue forward, either to the left or the right of the Palazzo del Senatore, until you reach a terrace overlooking the Roman Forum.

You are standing at the center of Rome and the ruins you see are the remnants of some of the city’s most important civic buildings. Look for the Temple of Saturn, the Temple of Vesta, and the church of San Luca e Martina and try to imagine their grandeur. Look to the distance then and you can see the Arch of Titus and the Colosseum. When the British novelist Charles Dickens visited Rome in the mid-19th century, he stood before the Colosseum and said that to “see it crumbling there, an inch a year; its walls and arches overgrown with green; its corridors open to the day… is to the see the ghost of old Rome, wicked, wonderful old city, haunting the very ground on which its people trod.”

LOCATION:  To reach the terrace, head to Piazza del Campidoglio, and for entrance to the Colosseum and the Roman Forum continue on and look for Piazzale del Colosseo, along Via dei Fori Imperiali.

HOURS:  The Capitoline Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:00 AM until 8:00 PM; the Colosseum and Roman Forum are open in the summer from 8:30 AM-7:15 PM. Click here for hours at other times of year.  

COST:  Admission is €13 for the Capitoline Museum; a combination ticket to the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and Roman Forum costs €12 and can be purchased online to avoid a lengthy queue. Purchasing a RomaPass instead for €34 might be a worthwhile investment, depending on the number of days you have in Rome and the number of museums you plan to see.

TIP:   While virtually no one appreciates the aesthetics of the Vittorio Emanuele II monument at Piazza Venezia, there is an elevator at the back of the building that will whisk you to the top for a panoramic view of the city for just €7.

WEBSITES:  The Capitoline Museum; the Colosseum and Roman Forum

#9

Stand beneath the dome of the Pantheon to marvel at a feat of ancient engineering

Built during the reign of Hadrian around 126 AD, the Pantheon is thought to be the best preserved building from ancient Rome. With its elegant pediment and massive Corinthian columns, it may not look like a house of worship, but it is indeed a temple whose name is derived from a Greek word meaning All Gods. It is best known, however, for its coffered dome, which was considered such a feat of engineering, even centuries later, that Filippo Brunelleschi traveled here in an effort to uncover its secrets before starting work on his own massive dome in Florence on the basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore. The circular opening in the center of the dome—an oculus—allows daylight to illuminate the interior.

Afterwards, be sure to sit and linger by the obelisk in Piazza della Rotunda, or break for an espresso in one of the local cafés. It is a lively square and you are certain to be entertained by something interesting, whether it is a talented street musician, or a curious pair of levitating men in orange robes and turbans.

LOCATION:  Piazza della Rotunda

COST:  Free

HOURS:  Always open

WEBSITE:  The Pantheon

#8

Travel along the ancient Appian Way and descend into the catacombs of San Callisto

The Appian Way was one of the most important roads in ancient Rome. Once upon a time, its cobblestone pavement began at the Circus Maximus and continued on past the Baths of Caracalla, all the way to the port city of Brindisi. Beneath the surface, there are scores of underground tunnels where the early Christians buried their dead, and today, many of these “catacombs” are open for guided tours.

For a pleasant break from the urban intensity of Rome, travel out along the Appian Way to enjoy the open green space and a multitude of worthwhile sites, including the remains of a sophisticated system of aqueducts. Then, on the way back, stop at the Catacombs of San Callisto to explore a massive burial site that once held the bones of half a million Christians, as well as nine popes and numerous martyrs.

GETTING THERE:  The catacombs are reachable by public transportation (see this link for details), but the route is time-consuming. Instead, I’d recommend taking the Archeobus, a hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus that begins its route in central Rome and then travels out along Via Appia Antica with a direct stop at the catacombs of San Callisto. Tickets cost €12 for adults and are valid for 48 hours. A family discount is available.

An organized bike tour is another fun option.

HOURS:  The catacombs of San Callisto are open daily (except on Christmas,  New Year’s Day and Easter Sunday) from 9:00 AM-12:00 PM and again from 2:00 PM-5:00 PM.

COST:  Admission to the catacombs is €8.

TIP:  The catacombs of San Callisto extend deep into the ground. It gets chilly down there, so taking a jacket is advisable, even in the summer.

WEBSITES: Appia Antica Park; Catacombs of San Callisto; the Park of the Appia Antica; Archeobus

#7

Spy the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica through a not-so-secret keyhole on the Aventine Hill

If you are in the mood for an interesting quest on a lazy afternoon, check your map and make your way to Piazza Cavalieri di Malta, where guidebooks promise a “secret keyhole” in a door that reveals a perfectly framed view of St. Peter’s Basilica through a tunnel of pruned hedge.

Look for the worn green door that guards the entrance to the garden of Priory of the Knights of Malta. It’s surprisingly easy to spot, because there is often a small crowd of people queuing for the chance to press their eyes and camera lenses against the keyhole. It may be a well-discovered “secret,” but it’s still as delightful as peering into a doll’s house through an old-fashioned shadow box.

LOCATION:  Piazza Cavalieri di Malta.

COST:  Free

TIP:  Taking a photograph through the keyhole is a tough shot because you have to get both the door and the dome in focus simultaneously. Be prepared to try and try again until you get it right, or do as I did and take a picture of each, then join them together using Photoshop.

WEBSITE:  ItalyGuides.it

#6

Stray off the beaten path and explore the narrow lanes of the Jewish Ghetto

Rome may be an intense and noisy city, but stray slightly off the beaten path into an historic neighborhood known as the Jewish Ghetto—tucked between the Vittorio Emanuele II monument and the Tiber River near Isola Tiberina—and you will find a maze of narrow alleyways that spill out into small piazzas, each more charming than the last.

If you are in the mood for culture and history, visit the Jewish Museum of Rome at the Great Synagogue, but if not, devote an afternoon to wandering aimlessly about the streets. Eventually, you will stumble upon the Bernini turtles that perch on the basin of the Fontana delle Tartarughe in Piazza Mattei, and the crumbling, remains of the Portico d’Ottavia, as well as host of enticing restaurants, shops, and boutiques.

If you stay for dinner, order a plate of carciofi alla giudia—Jewish-style artichokes, deep-fried to a luscious, golden brown.

LOCATION:  The Jewish Museum and synagogue are located on Lungotevere Dè Cenci.

HOURS:  The Jewish Museum and synagogue are open Sunday through Thursday, 10:00 AM-5:00 PM (summer hours are extended to 7:00 PM), and Friday from 9:00 AM-2:00 PM; closed on Saturdays and Jewish holidays.

COST:  Admission to the Jewish museum and synagogue costs €11 for adults, €8 for those over age 65, and €4 for students.

TIP:  While in the vicinity, considering making a short detour to Largo di Torre Argentina, where there is a sanctuary for abandoned cats. You’ll see dozens of them lounging about on the ancient ruins, and donations to help with their care are gratefully accepted.

WEBSITES:  Museo Ebraico di RomaJewish Ghetto Walk (Rick Steves); Echoes from the Roman Ghetto (The New York Times); Foodie’s Guide to Rome’s Jewish Quarter (Fodor’s)

#5

It’s mangia time!

Eating in Rome is an elevated art form, best enjoyed slowly with family and friends over a bottle or two of wine. But even if you’re travelling solo, take the time to dine out and dine well. Where else can you sip a cappuccino while reading a book in one of the oldest cafés in Italy—the venerable Antica Caffè Greco, on Via dei Condotti? And where else can you indulge as happily and as cheaply as you can here with a slice of pizza al taglio or a dish of gelato?

You should also embrace all the city has to offer by savoring some traditional dishes. Italian cuisine, after all, is a patchwork of regional specialties and local ingredients. While in Tuscany you can expect to find wild boar and Chianina beef, when in Rome look for veal saltimbocca or a spicy bucatini all’Amatriciana. And if you happen to be there in the early summer, don’t ever pass up the chance to order a plate of fiori di zucca—zucchini blossoms stuffed with ricotta cheese, battered and deep-fried.

One final tip, based on personal experience… If ever you long for the simplicity of cacio e pepe, the Italian answer to macaroni and cheese, be very careful how you say it. The letter “C” can be tricky for foreigners. Quite by accident, I once ordered a very private part of the male anatomy instead. It was an innocent slip of the tongue that sent my waiter into peels of laughter!

TIPS:  It may go without saying, but avoid restaurants that post generic photographs of generic food, or those that offer a special menu turistico in English. To gain confidence with Italian vocabulary, consider buying a copy of Eating & Drinking in Italy, by Andy Herbach. He offers basic advice on restaurant etiquette, as well as an indispensable menu translator. In addition to paperback copies, it’s also available for Kindle and iBook readers.

WARNING:  Because of a recent city ordinance, eating and drinking is now banned in areas of “particular historic, artistic, architectonic and cultural value” in Rome, which very nearly everywhere. Local police can now impose fines on tourists who violate the rules by snacking on a sandwich near the Colosseum or the Spanish Steps.

WEBSITES:  Not sure what to tip? Don’t know the difference between a primi piatti and a secondi piatti? Try this handy primer from Fodor’s. For all you need to know about gelato, see: Your Ultimate Guide to Gelato in Rome. And for tips on how to navigate the confusing world of Italian coffee, check out: How to Drink Coffee… Like an Italian.

#4

Sculptures, frescoes, mosaics and more!

As if having the ruins of ancient Rome beneath your feet were not enough, the city’s museums offer a fascinating mix of the elegant, the sublime, and the macabre.

Visit the Borghese Gallery to admire Bernini’s exquisite sculpture of “Apollo and Daphne.” Trek to the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme to see stunning frescoes and mosaics, including a lush painted garden from the Villa of Livia at the National Museum of Rome. Commune with the spirits of two of England’s greatest romantic poets at the Keats-Shelley House near the Spanish Steps. Or, plunge underground to see the skeletons of thousands of Capuchin monks woven into elaborate and ghoulish designs, including a grim reaper holding scales and a scythe made of human vertebrae. The opportunities are endless, bound only by the days in your itinerary and the strength left in your legs.

Here are my personal favorites, in descending order. For hours, locations, and the cost of admission, please refer to each museum’s website, linked below.

TIP:  If you plan to visit several museums in Rome, consider purchasing a Roma Pass, which costs €34 and provides free admission to the first two museums and reduced admission to each additional museum visited within a three-day period. It also provides unlimited use of the city’s public transportation network.

#3

Gaze upon the face of God in Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel

Getting to the Sistine Chapel is enough to test the patience of a saint.

First, there are the notoriously long lines get in, made worse by the heat of the summer sun. Then, there is the crushing weight of people inside—more than 6 million souls visit each year. In their only gesture toward crowd control, the Vatican Museums are arranged into a one-way street, with large black arrows printed on the gallery map. There are minor deviations here and there that allow visitors to move more quickly to the chapel itself by bypassing some inestimable treasures along the way, but mostly it’s like being on a theme park ride from which there is no escape once the rollercoaster has left the platform.

Buckle in and stay for the day.

Take your time and walk in awe through the 16th century Gallery of Maps that render the cities and towns of Italy in exquisite detail. You will see the Raphael Rooms, including his masterpiece, The School of Athens, paintings by Caravaggio and Leonardo da Vinci, and even an entire room devoted to sculptures of animals.

By the time you reach the Sistine Chapel, you will be acclimated to the unnatural closeness of the strangers and ready to gaze solely upon Michelangelo’s narrative: Noah and the flood, the temptation of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and (of course) God’s creation of Adam in the touch of two outstretched hands. Outside this place, in the pages of books, on coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets and computer mouse pads, the image is so familiar that it’s lost the power to impress. Here, though, you will feel the room pulse with energy and human emotion, and with history, too, for it is here the College of Cardinals meets to elect a new pope.

If time allows, follow the signs and continue on into St. Peter’s Basilica, and if strength remains after a thorough exploration, consider climbing to the top of the dome. Even with an elevator that rises part way, it’s a challenging climb to be sure. As the dome slants in, so too does the head room available on the stairs. It’s a tight and awkward squeeze, but the view is unparalleled. Look down upon St. Peter’s Square and then trace Via della Conciliazione all the way to Castel Sant’Angelo, across the bridge with its sentry of angels, all the way east to the Vittorio Emanuele II monument at Piazza Venezia, which towers over the city like an oversized wedding cake.

Rome is glorious and so, too, is Vatican City.

LOCATION:  St. Peter’s Basilica is located in Piazza San Pietro. To reach the Vatican Museums, turn right and walk out along the walls to Viale Vaticano. For more detailed directions, click here.

HOURS:  The Vatican Museums are open Monday to Saturday, 10:00 AM-6:00 PM. On Sundays, the museum closes at 2:00 PM, except for the last Sunday of every month, when there is also free entrance from 9:00 AM to 12.30 PM. Obviously, expect the lines to be even longer on that day.

COST:  Entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica is free; admission to the Vatican Museums costs €16 for adults.

IMPORTANT:  Modest dress is required. According to the Vatican website: “Access to Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, Vatican Gardens and Saint Peter’s Basilica is permitted only to visitors dressed appropriately (no sleeveless blouses, no miniskirts, no shorts, no hats allowed).”

TIPS:  You can now reserve tickets for the Vatican Museums online. Do it! Or, be prepared to face the consequences—a line of epic proportions that, at times, stretches halfway around the walls of Vatican City. If money is no object, you should know that VIP tours that allow private access off-hours are available.

MORE TIPS:  To extend your visit to Vatican City, consider booking a Scavi tour which takes visitors deep into the necropolis to the tomb of St. Peter (€16). Or, above ground, you can request a ticket to a Papal Audience held most Wednesdays (free).

STILL MORE:  There are more than 900 churches in Rome. If you have the time and the inclination, continue on with these:

#2

Viva l’amore and toss a coin into the Trevi Fountain

If you are forced to wade through a horde of tourists to get anywhere near the Trevi Fountain in Rome—and you will be—you might want to blame Hollywood for making such enchanting movies as La Dolce Vita, Roman Holiday, and Three Coins in the Fountain.

The fountain is impressive in its own right. Completed in 1762 at the terminus of an ancient Roman aqueduct, the pool of water is ornamented by a massive wall of travertine and Carrara marble statues representing an aquatic theme. To be honest, though, most people who congregate here have little interest in art and architecture. Most have come with loose change in their pockets and a very specific task in mind.

According to Fodor’s: “Everyone knows the famous legend that if you throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain you will ensure a return trip to the Eternal City. But not everyone knows how to do it the right way: You must toss a coin with your right hand over your left shoulder, with your back to the fountain. One coin means you’ll return to Rome; two, you’ll return and fall in love; three, you’ll return, find love, and marry.”

I’m a single lady, so the last time I was in Rome I threw an entire handful of coins of every size and denomination, just for good measure!

LOCATION:  Follow the crowds to Piazza di Trevi, off Via Del Tritone, near Piazza Barberini.

COST:  Free, aside from the coins you throw, which are collected regularly and used by the city to fund local charities.

TIPS:  If you feel inspired to reenact another scene from a famous Hollywood movie, you should visit the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, near the Circus Maximus, to snap a quick picture of “La Bocca della Verità,” or Mouth of Truth. It’s a carved stone face that was featured in the 1953 movie Roman Holiday. Legend has it that it bites off the hands of liars, so please be careful!  ;-)

Still can’t get enough? Try this walking tour of the locations used in Roman Holiday. Or, even better, explore the city on a scooter of your own, just like Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. Vintage vespa tours are available from Bici & Baci.

WEBSITE:  Trevi Fountain

#1

When in Rome, do as the Romans do… and join the evening passeggiata

The sweet life. That’s what la dolce vita means, and being in Rome with the pulse of human existence all around, it’s easy to understand the meaning, especially at the end of the day when the noise of traffic fades away and the city falls into a romantic reverie. Families flood the streets and take a gentle stroll about in an Italian tradition known as the evening passeggiata.

Join the crowds and enjoy the show. As someone once told me on my very first trip the Eternal City: “Rome by night, she is magic.”

She is, indeed.

SUGGESTED ITINERARY:  Here is an interactive map of the route I suggest, starting at the Colosseum and ending by the Spanish Steps. Be warned: the total distance of this walk is roughly 3 miles, but will take you by some of the city’s prettiest squares and monuments, including Campo de’ Fiori, Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, and the Trevi Fountain.

Click on the link below that reads “View Larger Map” to see detailed walking directions from site to site.


A Photo Gallery of Rome

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Letters from a Grand Tour of Europe, 1870-1871

Roger W. Swaim (1848-1872)
Roger W. Swaim (1848-1872)

Here in Vermont, the autumn leaves have faded and gone and the sky is a dull gray. Driving home from work last week, there was a fierce wind blowing snowflakes onto my windshield, so it seems that winter has come early to New England this year. I’ve lit the fireplace and settled in with a cup of coffee and a good book, but the cold weather has me longing for a balmy Italian summer.

To get me through the next few months, I’ve been reading and transcribing a set of long letters written by a young Harvard grad in the 1870s while on “The Grand Tour” of Europe and the Holy Lands. They are a travelogue from a different age, filled with lush details and wide-eyed observations, as well as some boisterous merrymaking over few pints of beer in Munich. When I think of my own tramps across Europe through the years, I’m struck not by the differences, but by just how little has changed…

Enjoy!
DLG


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

ROGER WILLIAMS SWAIM, son of Samuel B. and Aurora D. (Skinner) Swaim, was born in Worcester, Mass., July 12, 1848. He was fitted for college at the Cambridge High School, and entered with the Class in 1866; after graduation, in order to restore his health, which was quite poor, he started, in July, 1870, for a tour abroad, and for fifteen months travelled in Europe, Egypt, and the Holy Land, arriving in Berlin in September, 1871, where, as a member of the University, he studied during the winter. In March, 1872, while in Italy, he was taken sick, and died in Florence, on April 1 [1872], of congestion of the brain, aged twenty-three years and nine months. He had selected the ministry as his profession.

Source: Harvard College Class of 1870, Third Triennial Report of the Secretary, page 26.

August 2, 1870

I wonder if base-ball playing agrees with you as well as sight-seeing & parley-vousing does with me…

Asniers, Aug 2, 1870

Dear Perrin,

I wonder if base-ball playing agrees with you as well as sight-seeing & parley-vousing does with me. Except on sea travelling, [it] suits me perfectly. I walk regularly on my tramps around the city [of Paris] four, five, or six miles a day, searching both for what is in the guide book & what is not. I am afraid I shall be in the condition of Rev. Mr. Channing whose lectures I once attended, whom [William Master] Spackman, I believe, once said had learned more than he could systematize & comprehend.

You will take notice that this felicitous state of being is obtained only on land. On sea, it is a little different. I remember how beautiful to me once was the expression “rocked to sleep in the bosom of the billow.” I should like to see the man that uttered such a sentiment & either talk to him or take him or a voyage. I can no longer regard the sea as a sublime deity, throwing up its mighty waves & opening vast caverns disclosing the yellow sands beneath (Virgil). Now I look upon it as a mean sort of element which continually tips one this way & that way, forward & backward, from one side to the other, giving no peace to his brain, nor quiet digestion to his stomach. The whole voyage was just like this. The sea never rolled in such vast billows, or plunged with such force, that one could enter into the spirit of its fury & partake of the impulse, but heaving & swaying just enough & a little more than enough to make everybody feel like turning himself inside out. Poor passengers. Often have I seen ye stagger to the ship’s side & make libation after libation after libation to the sea, thus frightening away all the mermaids &c, or while promenading on the deck, dreadful warnings have filled the ship as some poor wretch in his extremity tried to relieve himself. But below in the cabin, what a noise. Squalls of infants, heart-rending bellowings, deep groans, followed by the noise of a rushing flood thrice repeated. After all there was considerable amusement. Many French people were aboard & the Americans who were abroad also affected the language so that I had a foretaste of La France. Many odd characters displayed themselves & Rich occupied a good part of his time in sketching them. Some of his drawings were very fine. He is now at the Hotel Mirabeau with his Father’s family. In a week or two he will go to Switzerland & return to Boston in the fall as he will study architecture in some office there.

We had a jolly time at Brest. Its magnificent fortifications, fine harbor filled with Monitors & ships of war, its narrow streets, funny shops & comical people, women with their white caps, peasants in their blouses & wooden shoes, soldiers & sailors in great numbers everywhere. We rambled about the town until evening, took the night train for Paris & arrived at the city at four o’clock in the afternoon of the next day, passing on the way the grand Cathedral at Chartres, which I purpose to visit after leaving Paris.

cdv-paris2We rode rapidly to the Hotel Mirabeau, passing by the Hotel des Invalides, with its gilded dome, beneath which the remains of Napoleon are entombed, then down the long esplanade, past the Corps Legislatif, over the Seine in the direction of whose length can be seen the towers of Notre Dame (by the way, I shall perhaps send home a few pictures of Paris by Rich, so if you call after his return, Mother will show them to you), then into the Place de la Concorde. These two places, the Tomb of Napoleon & this square are to me the crowning sights of Paris. I do not except even the Louvre, famous & glorious picture gallery though it may be, for stand here in the centre of the Place. Nearby is the famous Obelisk of Luxor over 3,000 years old telling of Egypt’s greatest sovereign, Sesostris. On each side are two magnificent fountains. All around are colossal images representing the different cities of France. Candelabra with designs representing the ancient galleys. Around is a broad grand avenue paved with concrete, while a wide side walk runs around the whole square. Add to this the size of the Square itself. Still more, on one side you look into the gardens of the Tuileries with its grand forest, on the other stretches away in the distance the Champs Elysees, a magnificent avenue with parks on both sides, at last ascending to the Arc de Triumphe. Then remember that in this place stood the guillotine of 1793. To this square hurried the fierce mob from the Faubourg St. Antoine to see the King, Louis XVI, die. Hither came from the Conciergerie, whose towers still remain, Marie Antoinette. Here continually came up the carts laden with the proscribed of Robespierre, Danton & Marat. The whole Revolution again comes up before the mind & one scene of history becomes realized.

cdv-paris1In the distance is the gilded dome of Napoleon’s tomb. One enters into what appears to be a vestibule above the great dome, with its frescoes below & just in front is a balustrade. You approach. It surrounds a crypt in which is The Tomb. It is an immense sarcophagus, magnificently polished & resting upon a rectangular mass of dark green stone in a cavity in which lies the body. Around in the pavement is a mosaic-like wreath of bay or laurel from which stream out rays of light. Around are images like Caryatides finely executed. Farther back is a shrine dedicated to Saint-Louis in the shape of a canopy, beneath which is an image of Christ on the cross. I need not say that in such a place as this, one can spend hours. Here one can realize another scene, or group of scenes, & becomes in some sense a hero worshiper. Right or wrong, one cannot but do homage in this place to a man who gave France a national sentiment, an idea of a foremost nationality. Perhaps someday we shall have a treatise with this title, “The Central Idea of the Napoleonic Dynasty.” It would be a grand study, that of this epoch. Perhaps this is nonsense.

Write soon, your friend,
R.W. Swaim

The rates of postage via Havre & via England, I have been told, are different. I have been told via England is best.

R.W. Swaim, Paris, France
Care of John Munroe & Co.
7 Rue Scribe

September 28, 1870

Now the road led me on past fields where women were out working, the men meeting, an old dame with rugged face & white cap like a sugar cone, seated in her lip-cart & driving a horse of immense proportions past huts thatched with straw, walled with stone & moss covered. Among these led little lanes in which men, women, boys & girls & infants all stared at the pilgrim…

Bordeaux, September 28, 1870

Dear Perrin,

My head is full of the jumble & Babel which assails my ears incessantly. Parisian French has ceased to be spoken & now uncouth, harsh sounds are heard on every side, poured forth with frightful volubility. Yet if I address them in book French, they immediately reply so that I can understand them & immediately return to their patios.

Possessed with an insane desire to see everything, I came to this little village, or hamlet, filled like all the other towns at present with the garde mobile, in order to visit the Druidic monuments. The distance between the stones, however, & Auray is eight miles & to Loch Maria Ker ten miles, & when one has reached the place it requires two or three miles more of walking or boating to visit them all, so scattered are they & so extensive. Behold me starting off at eight o’clock in the morning while the bell for mass was ringing. This mass is said everywhere for the French army. People were just coming with prayer books in hand, out of the houses. The road led for some distance between gardens completely enclosed by high stone walls, sometimes with a fierce & terrible aspect caused by the bits of glass stuck in the mortar at the top. The stone breakers & ditches, called here “cantonniers,” were just commencing their work for the day. In the forest, woodcutters were lopping off limbs, by no means dropping down trees in the wholesale way we have at home, but here a twig & there a branch. Everywhere the pine trees present this disfigured mutilated appearance. Great wounds on the trunk while atop the foliage is left to grow. Along the Loire, the willow trees are completely trimmed as fast as a new crop has grown & instead of beautiful waving willows there is only a succession of stumps.

Boys & girls now began to drive their little black & white cows to pasture, where little grass grew in the midst of much heath. Great heaps of fertilization showed themselves in the fields around which women in red skirts of diminutive length, barefoot, were working with fork & shovel. Here an old woman was cutting off the tops of potato vines, & yonder men & women were busily putting the potatoes into large sacks. At intervals along the road, old crones sat on the stone wall & watched a cow or black sheep, all the while knitting unceasingly black thunder clouds of stockings, one of the things which make the landscape of Brittany so dark & somber.

A windmill on every little eminence, at present their sails folded & only presenting an array of bare, rough sticks. I had a most curious sight of these from the summit of a hill near Dol. I could count eighteen of these madmen along the seacoast & on the ridge of hills extending around all jollily waving their arms & seeming to be in an ecstasy, sometime two close by each other would turn in opposite directions as if whacking each other in good earnest. It makes me laugh to see these old fellows go at each other in that way, each with a prop to his back. Every little while a crucifix lifted itself up by the wayside on pedestals, all in the coarse stone of the country, sometimes with rude attempts at carving a rough outline of a figure. In this respect, I fancy I find a difference between Normandy & Brittany—for in Normandy, the Calvary as it [is] called or in French “Calvaire” is of wood with a carved image of the same material & sometimes a spear & rod with a sponge at the end crossing below each other, but in Brittany usually only a stone crucifix.

Now I met the postman trudging along with mailbag on his back, or a lip-cart packed with women in white caps, black dresses & red cheeks, who stared vehemently at the stranger. All along the sides of the road, except where cultivated, grew this thorny heath, now become of a dully brown color & the nearer I approached the sea the more this covered the ground. Now & then little dolmens showed themselves. I turned aside to see three & had just got into a field to look at another when I saw a lot of girls leaning against it, which frightened me away. An old priest directed me to a long heath covered mound at the eastern extremity of which was an immense dolmen called “Table des Marchands.” An enormous block of stone formed the roof of a chamber, partially underground. The end of this chamber was formed by a large cone shaped column or boulder, the point of which supported the ends of the roof-boulder. At the opposite side an alley of stones commenced partially roofed & gradually narrowing down. The sides, or “parois,” were stones of a rude, rectangular shape, sometimes almost shapeless, but all destitute of any nicely marked angles. I could easily stand upright in it. The boulder forming the end of the chamber was entirely covered with figures, like pot-hooks, “par example” [an ink sketch is drawn here]. On the roof, a rude hatchet-shaped figure. On the sides, figures called “Caltae,” thus. But one marvel was the immensity of the stone which formed the roof, its underside convex, its upper surface almost perfectly level. The whole was supported on three points. A fragment large enough to make a second dolmen had been removed by some means to the other end of the mound. Very near this were the pieces of a huge Menhir, three facing toward the village, the remaining fragment being at right angles. Each of the pieces were enormous by themselves, when forming a whole one cannot estimate the strength required to lift such a mass into the air. It is the bulk, the mass, the density, combined with its size which impresses so forcibly the spectator. There one gets an idea of weight, of gravity, which is wanting in all polylithic structures. The stones were ten or twelve f[ee]t wide and six feet thick & all together the height over fifty feet. The material is surprising since it differs so much from the common stone or the country. The crystals are very large & the grain very coarse, resembling very much our Concord [Massachusetts] granite.

A gentleman in the cars gave me as his opinion that the stones were brought from Egypt. I should put an emphatic interrogation mark after that sentiment. The guide bade me stand at one end & put my ear to the stone while he tapped lightly on the end with the other & a sound otherwise hardly sensible became thus a clear, ringing note. Nearby were two smaller monuments, a dolmen & broken menhir. The guide then took me to the remains of [a] Roman circus. It was simply a stone wall with square stones on the exterior & where this had broken away, great masses of mortar & tile appeared. Everywhere in this region this tile shows itself sometimes in large fragments, usually in small bits.

The radius of the circus I should judge to have been fifty feet or more, but both that & the height I could not determine because a great part had been broken away by two roads of which it formed the angle & also a graveyard with an ossuary filled up its interior. For I was now in the country of the Veneti & it was in these morasses of the sea that Caesar found such resistance. It was at Vannes, the ancient Dariorlk, that the great sea fight took place. This whole region goes by the name of Mor-Bihan.

After obtaining a drink of cider at a café in the village, I secured two boatmen to row me over to Gavi’ Mnis [Gavrinis], an island about two or three miles away. They pulled hard against the tide, taking a circuitous course among the islands which they told me equaled in number the days of the year. All around, fishing boats, windmills & now retiring into the distance the little town of Loch Maria Ker. A great heap of stones forming a rude mound now arose before us & a little distance from it a farmhouse with apple trees around. The fishermen landed me on the opposite side just in an angle formed by the island & the ebb tide which now shot past on its way to the sea. After obtaining the key from the farmhouse & a stump of a candle & making a vain attempt to get some more cider, we returned to the mound in the side of which we found a little iron door to which several steps descended. This opened, showed a long low, narrow gallery or alley ending in a small square chamber. The floor was made up of rough stones forming in rude, clumsy way an ascent of several steps towards the chamber. The sides were slabs or stones somewhat rectangular & supported a roof of boulders. They were evenly arranged & the surface more regular than I had noticed in the others & all were carved in a most strange way. Generally in the centre would be a series of concentric circles & around the outer ring concentric half circles covering thus the whole surface & scattered here & there sculptures like Celtare—columns of Greek Lambdas, serpent like figures & hatchets visible here & there. On one of the stones, the carvings seemed to take the form of a human skeleton, but perhaps it was only a fancy natural to my underground situation. From one rock projected two handles like those of an urn, formed partly also by cutting out the material behind. As yet no one knows the meaning of these marks or whether they have any meaning at all, but are only decorations of the tomb.

On emerging from this cavern & ascending the summit of the tumulus, a beautiful view disclosed itself. The islands, just separated from each other by narrow strips of sea flowing between, while on some were to be seen other tumuli similar to the one on Gavi’ Mnis. From the open sea, visible in the distance, to all around was the Morbihan where the hardy Veneti had their haunts. Scattered over the calm surface were the rough boats of the fishermen. Little villages were scattered along the shore & the coast gave a comfortable, cozy aspect to the view by its brown heath.

Another pull thro’ the winding channel & we landed at a point of land a short ways from the village where an officer of the coast guard was stationed who must have a look at my passport. Being more easily satisfied than some other officials I have met, he did not detain me long & with the fishermen I went into a café & gave them each a cents worth of cider & plenty at that, which they enjoyed hugely. On my rising to depart they were so moved that they took off their hats & shook hands most cordially, wishing me a hearty “bon voyage.”

On going thro’ the village, I peeped into an ossuary in the old church-yard, a mere rough shed with slats on one side, like a prison house, allowing one to see the little coffin like boxes which contain the bones of those who have died. For the Bretons after a certain time (on one box I made out ten years) open the graves of their relatives, carefully disintegrate them & pack in small boxes which they deposit in a house or shed in the graveyard. Some of them had broken open & on the ground I saw some bones & [a]skull which grinned horribly. You may guess that I enjoyed my dinner that day.

Another trip was taken to Carnac to visit the stone phalanxes there at a distance of about eight miles. There are three eminences & each has its array of Menhirs. I found a ragged little [man] seated in the top of one whom I hired for ten cents to show me the groups. He first led me a long distance thro’ the woods & meadows to a group forming the Eastern extremity. At first very small, with scarcely any regularity, the stones gradually come into line at the same time growing larger & larger until they end in eleven or twelve huge boulders, twelve to eighteen feet high, each forming the head of a column. They form also one side of a rectangle which terminates the group. A tumulus forms the North side & menhirs the remaining sides.

Now retracing our steps, we came to a windmill “moulin a vent,” remarking all the way stones scattered here & there without any order. From the windmill, another group begins to form in the same way. From disorder & from little rocks, lines of mighty stones developing—rudely aiming at a conical shape as it seems, covered with moss & almost looking like some of the old Druids, petrified while marching in solemn procession. Some are fallen as if conquered in the Cadmean strife. There they are arrayed in order, but waiting as if for the return of those who were to guide them, but who have forsaken them. They stand there unable, as it were, to move or to speak, meaning something, but unable or forbidden to reveal it. At the head of this column was a Dolmen.

Crossing now the road between Carnac & Auray, soon another row appeared forming in similar manner & now terminating on a circular enclosure in which little cottages have been erected. The whole distance that we had traversed was about two miles. From this hill or rising ground, one could look back upon the long rows stretching away back over hill & valley & along the meadows, like great stone armies, their arrangement due to no glacier movement, but their bulky parts disposed by men if by main strength then with Titan toil & gigantic strength or if by artificial means then with awls & more of our modern implements.

Alas, among this people, no legend, such as Greece or Rome would have devised, is thrown around these remains. No gods or mighty heroes have people this land. They have never ascended higher than man, and instead of a golden age, nothing remains but these memorials of a hard, stern, cruel, rocky age. Yet on such a coast whose pasture is thorn & heath, where the sea extends its barren surface, extends into all manner of nooks & openings, making mere morsels of land whose whole coast is a graveyard, where fog, rain & terrible winters rule, all sentiment & romance must be washed out, or frozen out. Here stand these monuments, huge [and] hoary with age, the pendant moss bespeaking veneration & reverence, but silent, horribly silent—a silence which repels & terrifies. Is it that they dare not tell of the barbarities & cruelties of their savage antiquity, that of the shadows cast upon their surface by worshippers or revelers, all is too terrible for revelation? No romance, no glowing tale or love or valor, no legend of fairy power or hero’s might. Nothing but rough, shapeless masses on a bleak, gloomy, heath-covered coast. This mystery is not delightful.

But such a jolly time as I have had travelling in Normandy. I visited it just in the right time & obtained the first I could possibly eat & cider. If it does not flow in the streets, it was because such a tremendous absorbent as myself was found. But such landscapes as one finds in Normandy. I spent three days in Rouen & had a glorious time ransacking the churches, towers, museums, old building & all places where anything was ever done or said. It has a most delightful situation on the banks of the Seine, which here becomes a broad stream fitted for larger vessels. Around are high hills forming almost a cup for Rouen. It is easy enough to climb them, by reason of the magnificent roads which ascent by easy grades to the summits. I took one morning the road which leads to the Abbey of Jumieges. It winds along the brow of the hill which slopes toward the river & at every turn in the road, the meadow broad, magnificent, perfectly level, stretching away from the stream, not a fence to be seen upon their surface, but only variegated by the contrasts of the crops & newly plowed earth. The Seine with little islands shown only by heaps of foliage, the banks lined with shrubbery from which arose the tall, graceful popular & settled cozily the little country houses & chateaus, all assume new positions, each [surpassing] the others in beauty. From the summit one could look away into the valley with now the warm tins of its fields. The glitter of the river in the sun with the city for a dark background lifting up its spires & lanterns from St. Owen & the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

Now the road led me on past fields where women were out working, the men meeting, an old dame with rugged face & white cap like a sugar cone, seated in her lip-cart & driving a horse of immense proportions past huts thatched with straw, walled with stone & moss covered. Among these led little lanes in which men, women, boys & girls & infants all stared at the pilgrim. I wish I could adequately describe the glorious walks I have taken, both around Rouen & Caen. In Rouen itself, too, I could have spent weeks. Many boulevards have been made thus sweeping away much that was curious & antique, but a great deal still was left.

One night I had been rambling about the streets when suddenly at nine o’clock the great bell of an ancient tower began to ring the curfew. It sounded strangely to hear that deep solemn sound, repeating its old command to disobedience & forgetful ears. But still it rung in its vehement way as strongly as in the days of old when at its voice every household ceased its occupation & darkness nited thro’ all the village. I almost forgot the present as I stood beneath, in the little narrow land & imagined I shared in it longing for the past when it was not as now an unmeaning custom.

Not far from this tower is the little square in which Joan of Arc was burned. Perhaps it is absurd, but since I have seen so many of the places where she showed forth her mission & since so much of her history is forced upon my attention, I feel something like a superstitious veneration for her & this little neglected square seemed almost like holy ground. The surroundings are not attractive. Old dilapidated buildings around & in the centre a poor statue serving as a fountain for cabmen to water their horses, but one sweeps away all these profanities brings back the infamous scene that was enacted here all of which was yet glorified by her death. It becomes a spot not easy to forget & even a place of pilgrimage.

As Paris is just now shut up, it would be best to direct letters:

“R.W. Swaim
Care of Maguay Pakenham & Hooker
Rome, Italy”

Yours travellingly,
Roger

Please remember me to your Father & Mother & Brother.

If you can just let me know what Drew is doing. He had about the same questions as to a profession that I had. Just remember [me] to any of the fellows you see.

Bourdeaux
Sept 28, 1870

En route for Pau, Toulouse, Marseilles & Italie.

December 12, 1870

But jolliest of all to take an afternoon’s siesta in a gondola (twenty cents the first hour, fifteen after). Regularly we ordered the boatman “Up the Grand Canal” and back on the cushions put up our feet on the stools, whispered good night & passed into a blissful, cozy, half dreamy state to be aroused only by the approach of the dinner hour. Oh! I am getting homesick, not for America yet, but for Venice…

Mons Quirinalis, Dec 12, 1870

Dear Perrin,

It is with the greatest pleasure that I acknowledge the receipt of your letter. All the letters which I have received thus far have been greatly delayed by the war. Some I have not received which I know to have been sent & I am afraid that a few of mine have shared the same fate. Nor is this the worse treatment which I have experienced from that pseudo-republic of France. And the more it is punished the better. I feel & excuse myself because I think, perhaps, it may do them good. Over here one becomes intensely interested in European news & almost neglects American politics. But how I excel in this life of travel. It keeps one busy, gives him no time to read, scarcely to write, much less to eat—you may doubt that last statement in my case—& continually new sights, new aspects & a fellow is always revising & correcting his former opinions. But alas! As I may have written before, one tour only prepares the way for another & unless other duties intervene I shall have to make a business of traveling.

After having guided you around the Druidical remains at Auray, my duty should be to take you down to Pau, there to look off on the beautiful Pyrenees or visit the castle where Hen[ry] IV was born & describe his tortoise shell cradle, from thence to Marseilles where the “Reds” were have quite a carnival, from thence to Genoa as beautiful a place as one could desire, famous for its streets of palaces with the sea continually clashing against its walls & around its mountains capped with fortresses. And I think of all the palaces I have seen thus far those in Genoa are the most pleasing, for about the others there is either a mediaeval fortress like gloomy aspect or else a dilapidated appearance, but these have a princely, luxurious air which is increased on visiting the interiors. And best of all, for even if the front is unpretending, on looking in at the great portal one sees a delightful court sometimes containing shrubbery & flowers & around it a marble colonnade & from this court grand staircases lead to the upper floors where often are the choicest pictures. Sometimes the outside of the buildings is frescoed & all manner of designs & figures historical & symbolical are represented. There along the quay is a fine marble promenade built over the custom house & other buildings & from this one has a noble view of the harbour & the hills around. This then was the great rival of Venice. On the sea & at present [it] is becoming quite eminent as a sea port. Every where are scattered tablets & memorials of the power of the ruling family of the Dorias. And this is one of the singular things in the history of these Halian towns, that their record judging merely from the monuments remaining as buildings, statues & historical palaces is only the history of the ruling family. As in Milan, the viscounts, at Verona, the Scaligers, in Ferrara the house of Este, in Florence the Medici.

venice2But pardon me if I hurry you across Northern Italy. This delightful Milan with its wonderful Cathedral & clean sheets, thro’ Brescia & Verona where I visited Juliet’s house three times, I think, thro old Padua with its ancient University & streets lined with arcades, its tomb of Antenor[e] & great wooden horses to the best of all—most poetic, romantic, historic & beautiful—the strangest of cities—O glorious Venice! The one of all places that I remember with greatest delight & long to revisit, associated with all that is grand & inspiring. Poets time & again have referred to thee, how can I enough extol thee? We crossed the long bridge which leads from the mainland on a most beautiful day when the surface of the water glistened like a mirror in the sun & away in the distance disappeared in the sky. Some one shouted “gondola” & all became as enthusiastic as possible at the sight. And so we entered the station as jolly & gay, rushed for the boat & almost without knowing how began to move so easily & swiftly along the Grand Canal while others flitted past us in the same smooth, light manner. Palace after palace passed us, sometimes a dark massive structure rising from Doric to Tuscan & from Tuscan to Corinthian order, or its front of coloured marbles giving a gay & festive air. Soon rise up in the distance the great arch of the Rialto, but the boatmen turned aside before we reached it into a narrow canal full of angles where one must give a warning cry to others. Then we passed between two dark buildings & above us appeared a bridge & a second fit of enthusiasm seized all at the cry of “Bridge of Sighs.” But as usual, hotels are the first care & romance must have the second place.

The glory of Venice is the Piazza & Piazetto of St. Mark, places beautiful in themselves, famous for the scenes which have there taken place & peculiar & unique & without parallel. All that has occurred here has gained a strange, enchanting character & the usual events of history lose their tiresomeness here & read like romance. Of all the churches that of St. Mark’s is the most curious & perhaps the most interesting. Just in front are three bronze supports in which are thrust poles from which in former times waved the flags of conquered states. Over the central portal stand the famous bronze horses by which alone the Venetians are aware that there is such a species. All over the front are mosaics & the portals are filled with columns of rare marble, then a hall or entry extending the whole width of the church. Above are mosaics representing scenes from Bible history, below in the center the spot where Fred Barbarossa submitted himself to the Pope. At one end the tomb of [Ludovico] Manin, the last Doge. Entering & the same strange, fantastic character prevails as one on the exterior. A continual smell of incense, gold mosaics covering the arches & roof & pillars in which are worked figures of the Apostles, Martyrs & Saints, the pavement of little squares & triangles & round pieces of coloured marbles arranged in various forms, columns of rich marble brought to Venice as spoils from the East. Directly opposite the entrance is the choir with its canopy & altar under which rest the relics of St. Mark? Behind this another altar of whose columns two in alabaster came from Solomon’s temple & almost transparent. As to these relics I can hardly reckon how many pictures I have seen that were painted by St. Luke. How many impressions in stone made by the feel of Christ or the Saints & a miracle must have happened in regard to the true cross. But Venice is hardly the place for such superstition as the Popes never found her given over to superstition & blind obedience but rather a perverse & obstinate republic.

venice3In front of the church of St. Mark is the great Square with colonnades on three sides under which are the great stores which like all European establishments make beautiful displays in the shop windows & my evenings have generally been spent in strolling along stopping every little while to look in all the windows & no one is regarded as a greenhorn for doing it. As to the wonderful appearance of Paris shop windows, especially in the Palais Royal—alas—I refer you to Mons[ieur] Rich who fairly won the hearts of the Parisians during his stay. There are very good assortments of gift books, but jewelry holds the first rank & as I see city after city my perplexity ever increases as to what & where to choose. Then the Cafés (Hal. Caffé) where, rather curiously, one finds the very best society in Venice—gentlemen & ladies all coming to meet one another—and of all Cafe Florian’s is unrivalled (oh that lemonade). It is jolly enough to sit down at one of the little tables with a friend, order that beverage, hear the great bands play in the centre of the Sq[uare] around the immense candelabrum with numberless gas jets [and] watch the people promenading & around in one great circle or walking arm in arm around the colonnades. Such swell couples as they were, for the ladies of Venice are famous for their beauty.

From this great “Piazza” leads off between the Doge’s Palace & the huge Campanile & Library the Piazetta with its two famous columns on one of which is the Lion of St. Mark’s. This Piazetta at the end opp[osite] to the church form the quay where gondolas lie crowded together & gondoliers continually pester one. It is like a dream to stand here at the edge & not only enjoy the glorious view of the Lagune but to bring to mind (by the guide book) all that has taken place here. The sight of the Doge’s Palace is enough of itself to bring up visions & after visiting the Chambers of the “Council of Three,” “Council of Ten,” & Senate & then into the dungeons small & close & utterly black with the places for decapitation & strangling close by an opening into the canal for the bodies one feels that the romance has indeed a dark side. Here were pointed out the cells of Marin[o] Falier[o] & the Foscari & in the Court is the great staircase where it is said that Faliero was beheaded. We also passed into the Bridge of Sighs, but one could believe that conspirators found enough that was terrible in the Palace itself without needing to cross the Bridge. But what perhaps most attracted my attention was a little hole in the wall of the antechamber to the rooms of the Councils, formerly ornamented with a lion’s mouth, into which were once dropped secret accusations.

But jolliest of all to take an afternoon’s siesta in a gondola (twenty cents the first hour, fifteen after). Regularly we ordered the boatman “Up the Grand Canal” and back on the cushions put up our feet on the stools, whispered good night & passed into a blissful, cozy, half dreamy state to be aroused only by the approach of the dinner hour. Oh! I am getting homesick, not for America yet, but for Venice, where walking about & all exertion was tabooed. There I place the Isles of the Blessed. Here [in Rome] it is nothing but trudge thro narrow, dirty streets smelling horribly. How I hate these cities & I feel good only when away from them. Yet says that nuisance, the guidebook, “no visitor should neglect” &c. I am fast coming to a horribly utilitarian & degraded wish. Give me fresh air, the sun & good food & down with pictures, statues & antiquaries. Away with them—Hurrah. Soon a woolen shirt, broad brimmed hat, big shoes & shillalah. A free & easy life on the Nile where clean shirts & neckties are forbidden & jolly camel back donkey-riding trip in Syria. Then won’t I make a holocaust of civilization & kidgloves—whoop—toot—toot—toot—that’s my bugle. There are some jolly people gone East whom if I meet—“Now my boys let’s all go in.”

cdv-colosseumBut Oh dear! Here is this awful task of Rome on my hands. A mass of brick to investigate, excavations to penetrate, from a few scattered labyrinthic, pell-mell ruins to get an idea of what Rome was from eight feet of stone wall to guess what, the wall of Servious was & to make this out thro mud & rain & bad odours. That Cloaca Maxima had so bad an effect on a gentleman whom I accompanied that he ran off to the corner of the next street & waited there for me (literal fact). It was pretty bad. All that could be seen was an arch of coarse stone just peeping out of the stream. It certainly should not be visited in rainy [weather], being almost submerged. Most of my time I have spent merely in walking about, find out where the places are situated & this is more than enough for two weeks & as to visiting the places thoroughly, say from one year up. Moreover, the Pope has lightened my labours by closing the Vatican at which one acts like a child who with his hands full of fruit wants more. But most fortunately, coming here a little before the crowd, I got one of the few tickets given out and had the luxury of seeing the Apollo Belvedere, the Laocoon & the Torso. That was a glorious afternoon to me & perhaps I ought never to visit them again. Such a great impression did they make upon me I can hardly describe them now as I don’t know what words to use.

I am sure, however, if I did not remember Plato & my standing on the scale as respects my understanding him, I should call the Greeks first in everything—art, literature &c.  But the summum bonum of Rome is perhaps the Forum. I have tried to descend the Capitoline Hill by the winding way where the ancients walked & stand on the Rostia or sit on the cone which represents the ideal centre of Rome, but “none e permesso.” After all, I shall only appreciate Rome after getting away when forgetting its filth & discomforts. I can think of its power in the post & its grandeur. Yet one does feel the influence of the power perhaps past, when under the shadow of St. Peter’s. The thought of being at the centre not only of a mighty temporal empire, but of an awful spiritual power which has so long & so completely controlled men’s souls, is sometimes terrible. And perhaps nothwithstanding Bunyan’s parable there is mighty life remaining, one is compelled to think a little about Popery here.

cdv-romanforumBut, if I can, I will describe in dull prose that Forum from the Capitol to the Colosseum. I hope to send home some photographs of Rome & I should be very much pleased if you would call & see them. Your letter has set me to dreaming of baseball. I am very fortunate so far in acquaintances, having fallen [in] with good, jolly fellows. Please direct to Munroe & Co. as before & remember me to your family. Hope to leave in a week for Naples & Sicily. I write amid the difficulties of sightseeing &c. My quarters are gay, being just opp[osite] the Palazzo Barberini.

Truly Your Friend,
Roger W.S.

Dec 14, 1870

Top 10 Things to Do in Florence, Italy

Top 10 Things to Do in Florence, Italy

Whenever I think of Florence, I like to remember my favorite scene in E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel, A Room with a View. When the heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, first enters the Basilica of Santa Croce without a guidebook, she feels lost and alone.

Of course, it must be a wonderful building. But how like a barn! And how very cold! Of course, it contained frescoes by Giotto, in the presence of whose tactile values she was capable of feeling what was proper. But who was to tell her which they were? She walked about disdainfully, unwilling to be enthusiastic over monuments of uncertain authorship or date. There was no one even to tell her which, of all the sepulchral slabs that paved the nave and trancepts, was the one that was really beautiful, the one that had been most praised by Mr. Ruskin.

Then the pernicious charm of Italy worked on her, and, instead of acquiring information, she began to be happy.

We should all be more like Lucy when we’re in Florence—that most intimidating of cities. As her companion, the outspoken Miss Lavish says, the “true Italy is only to be found by patient observation.”

With that in mind, put the guidebooks aside. “Give it to me; I shan’t let you carry it. We will simply drift.”


An interactive map of the sites recommended in this article:

#10

Walk in Lucy’s footsteps and visit the Basilica of Santa Croce

The colorful marble stripes on the front of this Franciscan church may be Victorian—described by Forster as a “black-and-white façade of surpassing ugliness”—but the interior dates to the dawn of the Renaissance. There are frescoes by Giotto and Gaddi, as well as tombs and cenotaphs dedicated to many great Italian men, including:

  • Galileo Galilei, the mathematician and astronomer;
  • Dante Alighieri, known for his Divine Comedy;
  • Niccolò Machiavelli, author of a famously shrewd treatise on power known as The Prince; and
  • Michelangelo Buonarroti, the renowned sculptor, painter, architect, and poet, who designed the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome, created the iconographic statue of David before his battle with Goliath, and painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Take your time to wander about Santa Croce, then be sure to see the wonderful church museum that’s adjacent, just through the cloisters.

LOCATION:  Piazza Santa Croce, 16

HOURS:  Monday-Saturday, 9:30 AM – 5:30 PM; Sundays and Holy Days, 2:00 PM – 5:30 PM

COST:  Full price ticket, €6; reduced price ticket for children, €4

RULES:  Appropriate dress; photography is permitted without a flash, no tripods

WEBSITE:  Basilica di Santa Croce 

#9

Shop for leather goods at the venerable Scuola del Cuoio

Florence is justifiably famous for its leather. You can shop the San Lorenzo street market* for fun and inexpensive items of questionable origin, or visit any number of the high quality boutiques in town, including Madova, Roberta, Peruzzi, and Frizzoni, but my own personal favorite is the Scuola del Cuoio. Their products—ranging from belts and wallets to stunning purses—are meticulously handcrafted out of lambskin and other more unusual pelts, including deer, ostrich, python, and alligator. For a memorable experience, you can also visit the workshop and watch as an artisan monograms your purchase in gold or silver leaf.

* Update: As of January 2014, the San Lorenzo street market has been indefinitely moved to Piazza del Mercato Centrale and its surrounding streets.

LOCATION:  Enter through the Basilica di Santa Croce, or through the garden that surrounds the apse, at Via San Giuseppe, 5r.

HOURS:  Fall/Winter, Monday-Friday, 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM, Saturday, 10:30 AM – 6:00 PM; Spring/Summer, Daily 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM.

WEBSITE:  Scuola del Cuoio

#8

Cross the Ponte Vecchio and explore the antique galleries and artisan shops of the Oltrarno

The name “Oltrarno” simply means the “other side of the Arno.” From sculptors and wood carvers to gilders, bookbinders and goldsmiths, the small shops you’ll find along the maze of streets between the Ponte Vecchio and Piazza Santo Spirito may seem a world away from the hoards that congregate in Piazza della Signoria and Piazza del Duomo, but getting there requires nothing more than an easy walk across one of Florence’s beautiful bridges.

While the Ponte Santa Trinita and the Ponte alle Grazie were both destroyed by the Nazis near the end of World War II and later rebuilt, the Ponte Vecchio—or “Old Bridge,” in the middle—was spared. Like Brunelleschi’s red-tiled dome, the Ponte Vecchio is an iconographic symbol of Florence.

Before you cross the bridge to the Oltrarno, be sure to stand back along the riverbank to admire the shops that hang pell-mell from the sides. The butchers and fishmongers of the medieval city are long gone, replaced by jewelers whose wooden doors and wrought iron hardware at the close of day resemble a row of pirates’ treasure chests.

GETTING THERE:  Explore the area on your own (The New York Times and National Geographic both offer useful itineraries), or book a walking tour with a guide.

NOTE:  For a full day, combine a stroll about the Oltrarno with a visit to the Pitti Palace or the Boboli Gardens, or even late afternoon vespers at the church of San Miniato al Monte (see #4 below).

WEBSITE:  Welcome to Oltrarno

#7

Climb Giotto’s bell tower for a breathtaking view of the city

Getting to the top of the cathedral’s campanile in Florence requires 414 steps, but the view overlooking a sea of red tiled roofs more than makes up for the effort. You can see San Lorenzo and the Medici Chapel to the north, the Palazzo Vecchio to the south, Santa Croce to the east, and the church of San Miniato al Monte in the far distance on a hill across the Arno. Best of all, Giotto’s bell tower will give you an unparalleled look at Filippo Brunelleschi’s famous dome.

If you make it to the top and back, be sure to reward yourself with a few scoops of gelato. The delicious Grom is nearby, on Via del Campanile, at the corner of Via delle Oche.

LOCATION:  Piazza del Duomo. Enter via the stairs in the nave of the cathedral, or outside on the south side of the cathedral

NOTE:  There is no elevator. Visitors must climb 414 steps to reach to the top of the bell tower, but unlike the trek to the dome, the staircase is wide and headroom is ample, making it a better choice for those who are claustrophobic.

HOURS:  Daily, 8:30 AM – 7:30 PM

COST:  €6, although a combination ticket including the Duomo, bell tower, dome, crypt, baptistery, and museum is also available

WEBSITE:  Museo del Duomo

#6

See the Gates of Paradise and glimpse the fiery pits of Hell at the cathedral’s baptistery

Michelangelo once called Lorenzo Ghiberti’s bronze panels for the baptistery doors the “Gates of Paradise.” Here in Piazza del Duomo, those panels, which depict scenes from the Old Testament of the Bible, are reproductions of the originals that were installed in 1452, but they are stunning nonetheless.

Inside the baptistery, the scene is somewhat different. The lush ceiling mosaic depicts a benevolent Jesus with arms outstretched and a choir of angels overhead, but what you’ll notice most is a disturbing image of “The Last Judgment.” Look carefully and you’ll see Satan munching on the naked torso of an unrepentant sinner, while others meet an equally unpleasant fate in the jaws of snakes, lizards, and giant beetles.

If you save your visit for a sunny day, you’ll also see rays of sunshine slanting through the room’s narrow windows. When the gold leaf on the glass tiles capture the light, they shimmer and glow as if lit internally by the flames of a hundred candles.

LOCATION:  Piazza del Duomo

NOTE:  Ghiberti’s original bronze panels for the baptistery doors can be seen nearby at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo

HOURS:  Monday – Saturday, 12:15 PM – 7:00 PM; Sunday and the first Saturday of the month, 8:30 AM – 2:00 PM

COST:  €4, although a combination ticket including the Duomo, bell tower, dome, crypt, baptistery, and museum is also available

WEBSITE:  Museo del Duomo

#5

Museums, museums, museums!

It’s hard to think of a city with more enticing museums than Florence.

You can see Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus at the Uffizi Gallery, compare Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia to Donatello’s David at the Bargello, marvel at the world’s largest collection of artists’ self portraits in the Vasari Corridor, stand before Benozzo Gozzoli’s stunning frescoes in the Chapel of the Magi at the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi or Fra Angelico’s Annunciation at the San Marco monastery, or indulge in the splendors of the Pitti Palace and the Palazzo Vecchio.

There is never time enough to visit museums in Florence, but be sure to wile away the hours at one—if not all—of these:

COST:  Admission fees for individual museums vary, but consider buying a Firenze Card which provides queue jumping access to 60 different churches, museums, and historical sites at a cost of €72. The card, which is valid for 72 hours, also includes public transportation, use of the city’s wifi network, and dedicated Android iPhone, and iPad apps with built in GPS. Another option is the Amici degli Uffizi pass, which costs €60, but is valid until the end of the year. For useful tips on which to buy and why, click here.

#4

Hear Benedictine monks sing in Georgian chant at the church of San Miniato al Monte

The basilica of San Miniato al Monte is a beautiful Romanesque church in its own right. Built between the 11th and 13th centuries, it has a long, graceful nave and an adjoining cloister and cemetery. But once you’ve visited the grounds thoroughly, consider staying for vespers, an evening prayer service in the Roman Catholic church during which the local Benedictine monks sing in Gregorian chant. It can be a wonderfully serene moment in an otherwise intense and overwhelming city.

LOCATION:  Via delle Porte Sante, 34

TIME:  On Sundays and Feast days, the monks accompany Mass with Gregorian chant at 10:00 AM and 5:30 PM in the crypt. In the summer, Gregorian chant also takes place during vespers at 5:30 PM on weekdays.

NOTE:  If you go, please—I beg you—be polite enough to stay through the entire service. There is nothing worse than a tourist who drops by, only to wander out a few minutes later.

COST:  Free, but a small donation to the church is a welcome gesture

WEBSITE:  Basilica di San Miniato al Monte

#3

Rub the snout of Il Porcellino for good luck and a future return to Florence

Il Porcellino is the statue of a wild boar located under the loggia of the Mercato Nuovo, near Piazza della Signoria. Legend has it that if you place a coin in his mouth and allow it to fall into the grating below, it will bring good luck. And if you rub his snout, you will ensure your return to Florence someday. Needless to say, it’s been polished to a brilliant shine by thousands of tourists.

I’ve visited the little piglet myself on the final night of each of my trips to Florence, and I know it works because I always come back.

LOCATION:  Piazza del Mercato Nuovo

COST:  Free, aside from the coin you use for luck! The proceeds are collected and distributed to local charities.

#2

Stop and listen to a street musician

From Italian pop to accordions and classical guitar, it seems that there’s always live music on the streets of Florence, especially in the evenings on the Ponte Vecchio, and in Piazza della Signoria and Piazza della Repubblica.

Stop, listen, enjoy. It’s free.

And if you like what you hear, tip them a Euro or two. Or better yet, buy their CD to bring those lovely Italian memories home. Listening to Claudio Spadi sing “A te” or “Acquarello” in the middle of a cold, Vermont winter always brings a smile to my face.

WHERE:  In the summer, you can usually find local musicians on the Ponte Vecchio, Piazza della Signoria, Piazza della Repubblica, and often in Piazza San Marco, Piazza Santa Croce, and Piazza Santo Spirito.

WHO:  My personal favorites? Here are some videos of performances by Claudio Spadi and Luca Sciortino, Justyna Maria Janiczak, and Piotr Tomaszewski

#1

Watch the sunset from Piazzale Michelangelo

The panoramic view of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo, high on a hill on the south bank of the Arno River, is magnificent. From a distance, the architectural details of the city melt into harmonious shades red and yellow, and like the brush strokes in an impressionist painting, the impact from afar is greater than the sum of its parts.

To see the city at its best, go in the evening and stay for the sunset. It’s a sight you’ll long remember.

LOCATION:  Viale Michelangelo

GETTING THERE:  Aside from a taxi or rental car, there are three options for getting to Piazzale Michelangelo:

1) Walk along the banks of the Oltrarno to the footpath that winds up the hill. Please note that there are many stairs and they are steep;

2) Take the number 12 bus from Santa Maria Novella train station; or

3) Reserve a sunset limousine tour with a company such as I Just Drive, which costs €18 per person and requires a minimum of four people.


Where to stay when in Florence

My personal choice is always the Hotel Davanzati at Via Porta Rossa, 5, but don’t just take my word for it. Check out their reviews on TripAdvisor.

Hotel Davanzati Hotel Davanzati Hotel Davanzati


A Photo Gallery of Florence

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