You should arrive at the airport for your flight to Rome. On arrival, a coach will take you to delightful Arezzo in the heart of Tuscany and an ideal base for our series of visits during the next few days. We stay four nights with dinner at the four-star Hotel Minerva, located about half a mile from the medieval city walls. The hotel was started as a restaurant fifty years ago by the present family owners and they are extremely proud of their restaurant which specialises in traditional Tuscan cuisine.
After breakfast, we drive to lovely medieval Siena which was, during the 12th and 13th centuries, one of the world’s largest and richest cities and a similar size to Paris! An unrivalled period of building took place and the range of palaces, grandiose townhouses and piazzas were built. Without doubt the main square, the Campo is one of the most beautiful you will ever see. Unusually half-moon shaped and surrounded by tall, centuries-old buildings, they are all different embracing an overall harmonious and beautiful style. Just to sit here, enjoy a drink and reflect on lives gone by is a real pleasure.
Siena’s cathedral is absolutely outstanding, one of Italy’s greatest, built from black and white marble with the most intricate carvings imaginable some of which are by the great master himself, Michelangelo. The floor is a revelation with countless thousands of pieces of stone creating a unique inlaid pavement. It is impressive enough now but had a planned nave been completed during the 14th century, it would have created Christendom’s largest church. You can study the façade for hours, so fine are the carvings. The city fell into rapid decline after the Black Death, accounting for the city’s astonishing preservation. During the journey to and from Siena we shall see some of the famous Tuscan countryside: rolling hills punctuated by tall cypress trees, shading isolated farmhouses and surrounded by vineyards, together with hillsides crowned with tiny villages perched like eagles’ nests, make this truly a wonderful scenic area.
Today we visit Florence, pearl of the Renaissance, a superb and beautiful city and deservedly on the map of the traveller since the days of the Grand Tour. During our guided tour you will see the principle monuments such as the Cathedral – which can house a congregation of 10,000 and the Baptistry – the oldest building in the city. This afternoon we enjoy a reserved visit to the Uffizi gallery, quite simply one of the world’s most monumental art collections. It contains work by Botticelli, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, Caravaggio, Michelangelo – the list is endless. Florence is not just about art though, it is a delightful place in its own right. Full of shops and colourful markets which delightfully complement the city’s artistic treasures.
Arezzo is a wonderful medieval town nestling behind its imposing stone walls as it has for centuries. This morning, we have a walking tour during which we learn about the town’s illustrious past and there is a host of things to see. The Romans built an amphitheatre here, Arezzo’s glassware was famed throughout the empire and the workshops still exist. The city flourished in medieval times, coming under the rule of the Medicis in the 15th century and today the town is a complete kaleidoscope of architectural styles which somehow blend together harmoniously, with such charm. There are Romanesque churches juxtaposed with timber-beamed medieval shops, separated by intimate cobbled squares. Arezzo’s main square is nothing short of a masterpiece and without doubt must be one of Europe’s most stunning. With its raised pavements full of cafés, here you can appreciate the tall multi-styled buildings opposite. Some crenulated, a simple church, some steeped roofed, some traditional terracotta, some brick and some stone, many sport the heraldic flags from yesteryear, but all of this combined really is an unexpected revelation. Arezzo’s second claim to fame is its superb frescoes housed in the huge cathedral, some of the world’s most detailed and most well preserved.
This afternoon you are free to explore this lovely town as you wish, absorbing its astonishing charm. Arezzo is also noted for its extremely skilled jewellery industry. In countless traditional workshops, skilled artisans create the highly original pieces on display fashioned from gold, silver and every dazzlingly precious stone known to man. You could do worse though, than enjoy a sumptuous lunch overlooking the main square and reflect on times long ago, when it would have been full of robed bishops and merchants hurrying along to their next appointment. There is an unmistakable ambience throughout Italy and it is hard to put your finger on what makes it so special, but here in Arezzo it is very much in evidence.
Today we leave Tuscany after breakfast driving firstly to Assisi. This delightful medieval town, with its flower-hung streets, lovely views over the Umbrian countryside and fountain-splashed piazzas is famous for a single event – the birth of Francis, the most revered saint in Italy. The man himself was one of the most extraordinary figures the Italian church has ever produced. He had a privileged upbringing, leading a very un-Christian lifestyle, but whilst imprisoned, God appeared to him. After release, he renounced his inheritance, living the life of a beggar, and mixed with lepers, but ultimately found his vocation founding the order of monks which bears his name, the Franciscans. Two years after his death, the basilica was built, financed by donations from all over Europe creating one of the most beautiful shrines in the Christian world adorned by arguably its greatest art collection outside an actual gallery. The building today is actually two churches, one on top of the other with St. Francis himself lying under the floor in the crypt. The mood inside is most respectful, being in tune with Franciscan principles - silence being the rule, quite plain around the tomb itself and accompanied by brown robed monks. We have ample time to visit the basilica together with the town, arriving in Rome early evening.
Our hotel is the four-star Church Palace (previously named Hotel Palazzo Carpegna), converted from a Renaissance-inspired palace which was once a monastery, and surrounded by seven acres of private garden overlooking the beautiful parks of the Villa Carpegna and Villa Pamphili. The hotel is less than a 10 minute walk from the metro, four stops from the Vatican and on a direct line to the Spanish steps and Trevi fountain making idependant exploration very easy. All rooms are air conditioned and decorated in a modern and elegant style with dark wood furniture and granite floors with the normal amenities you would expect from a four-star property. The hotel has two restaurants serving typical Italian cuisine, a comfortable lounge and elegant bar area.
Rome is, without doubt, one of the most captivating cities in the world, where ancient and modern blend perfectly. This morning, we have a sightseeing tour during which you will see many of the principle sights and monuments such as St. Peter’s, the Colosseum, Circo Massimo, Victor Emmanuel memorial, the Vatican, Palatine Hill, River Tiber, the list is endless. Probably nowhere else on earth is there so much history in such a small area. It owes its grandeur obviously to the Roman Empire which held sway over much of the globe for nearly 500 years and then to the Papacy which for a large part of its existence, commanded as much political influence as religious. But it’s more than buildings and galleries, there are quiet areas, tiny little piazzas, lovely bars, cosy restaurants where the waiters will talk all day if you let them. All this combined gives the uniqueness which is Rome.
This afternoon you are free to explore as you desire although you may wish to visit the Vatican Museums (entrance fee not included), the only part of the Palace you can visit independently. This is the largest, richest and most compelling such complex on earth which contains so many artefacts from the city’s history. Many of the finest artists of the Renaissance worked for a variety of Popes but there are other displays too: Egyptian antiquities, furniture, sculpture, silverware and of course, Michelangelo’s wondrous masterpiece of the Sistine Chapel which really has to be seen to be believed.
Today you have a free day to explore this amazingly interesting city as you wish, so what is it to be? Perhaps some of the ancient ruins: the atmosphere of history is inescapable as you view the magnificence of the heart of the Roman Empire. Looking at the Forum, Colosseum, the Pantheon to name but a few, it is easy to let your mind wander and imagine who has preceded you: Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, St. Paul, Nero, St. Peter and when you see how compact everything is the atmosphere is quite eerie.
Take a stroll around the Piazza Navona, Rome’s most picturesque square, lined with luxurious cafés, where the present day Romans come to see and be seen with the superb baroque fountains lending a cooling sensation to the whole scene. Walk down the Spanish steps like countless visitors before you since the 18th century. Take a coffee in the famous Caffe Greco, once the haunt of Keats, Byron and Wagner. You could window shop along the Via Condotti for some of the finest clothes you will find anywhere. Perhaps the most satisfying activity though is simply to wander where your feet take you stopping off where you wish – its serenity will captivate you.
The coach will take you to Rome airport, at the appropriate time.