I want you to remember the first time you fell in love.
Not that bittersweet, young love full of drama and surging hormones.
No, I want you to remember the first time it all felt real. Ache in your heart when they aren’t around, wake up and fall asleep thinking about them, heart skips watching them put away dishes sort of love.
As melodramatic as it sounds, that’s how I feel about Italy.
I made my first voyage to this boot-shaped country in 2011 as part of a study abroad program offered by Academic Programs International (API) that was based in Florence - the epicenter of the Renaissance.
Situated with an apartment on Via San Zanobi, I became instantly infatuated with the rich culture, torrid history and succulent, scenic backdrop of a city that seemed to seep romance from its pores.
It wasn’t until I had the chance to branch out, absorb bits of Tuscany piece by piece, that it started to become a part of me.
When I sleep, I dream about the endless maze of canals in Venice, winding like a labyrinth throughout the city. When I’m awake, I think back to wandering the streets of Rome, touching the stones – each with its own pocket of history trapped within the marble. I pine for the fresh gnocchi and mozzarella di bufala I found in the Mercato Centrale in Florence and the Baci and gianduiotto I tasted in Perugia.
You see, Italy is a country that it doesn’t matter how many novels you read, how many times you’ve binge watched Eat, Pray, Love or stalked #italy on Instagram…nothing really prepares you for grandeur it has carved into the landscape of Europe.
This country has a very special, inimitable and charming magic that I have yet to find a rival to.
That’s why, today, we’re going to take a look back at the places that have hollowed out a permanent place in my heart.
Starting with the city that started it all…
Looking back at my time in Florence, I don’t have words that can truly express how much this city meant to me. How much it changed me. This ancient city only covers about 40 square miles of Italian territory, but it is living, beating heart of Tuscany. Food, art, high fashion, history – you can enjoy the best what Tuscany has to offer on almost every single street.
For me, I connected with three places the most.
Cathedral di Santa Maria del Fiore (aka…The Duomo)
During my first (of many) self-guided foot tours of Florence, the Duomo was the first structure that I came across that sucked the air from my lungs. The red and green marble, the intricately carved statues, the paintings edged in gold, and the bronze doors all command your attention instantly. Each day, as I walked to class, I never got tired of passing Giotto’s Bell Tower, the Baptistery and the Dome itself. Each time, as I made my way across the cobblestones, I found a new carving, a new statue or intricate vein of green in the marble and it was like I saw it again for the first time.
The Arno & It’s Sister Bridges
Flowing straight from the heart of the Alps, the Arno River splits the city of Florence in two. The Arno, itself, is a beautiful thing. But the seven bridges that connect the east and west sides of Florence are something that everyone needs to witness at some point in their lifetime. The Ponte Vecchio and it’s sister bridges are like an endless rainbow on the horizon. The most famous (and arguably the most stunning) is The Ponte Vecchio or ‘Old Bridge,’ that joins the centre of city with the district of Oltrarno on the south bank of the Arno. As the first and only bridge built during the Roman period, Ponte Vecchio is one of the symbols of Florence. As the only bridge that that was spared by the Germans in their retreat during World War II, the Ponte Vecchio is a masterpiece of architecture and beauty.
Giardino dell'Iris (The Iris Garden)
This places has my heart. When I stumbled across the Giardino dell’Iris during my last semester abroad, I instantly knew I had found somewhere special. Located at Piazzale Michelangelo, this free garden is is only open from late April through May. The garden is about 2.5 acres and is divided by streets and stairs in local pietra serena. The iris are surrounded by olive trees and can enjoy a unique and breathtaking view over Florence.
Rome is a city that breathes art and history. Rome was capital to the legendary Roman Empire that conquered almost all of the known world. As a lover of mythology and any relic of ancient Rome, this city just resonated with me. I was fascinated by its dual personalities. The contrast of historic and contemporary appearance of this city will leave you speechless. There are so many different layers of Rome since so many buildings were built on top of others. In some buildings around the city you can see many different eras – the bottom floor consists of big stones and columns from Ancient Rome, the second floor has a Middle Ages/Gothic feel, and the top floor has Renaissance or modern architecture.
Venice (Murano + Burano)
There is a reason that Venice is described as "La piu bella citta del monde" (the most beautiful city in the world). With 118 islands, more than 175 canals and over 400 bridges, every corner of Venice is picturesque - a blend of pastel-colored Renaissance buildings, quaint bridges, and panoramas of sky and sea. No traffic sounds, no gargling engines, or holed mufflers. Just the constant swish of water and the dull hum of boat engines moving people about the city. But as beautiful as the mainland is, some of my favorite sites when I visited the “Floating City” was on it’s sister island of Murano and Burano.
The venetian island of Murano is known for its glass making. In the 13th century, the foundries in Venice were all moved to Murano to protect the wooden structures of Venice from potential fires. Soon, Murano became the center of glass-making in Europe. To this day, Venetian glass and ornate glass chandeliers from Murano are known the world over.
Lacemaking is to Burano what glassblowing is to Murano. The island’s residents have been experts at making intricate lace since the 1400s. Leonardo Da Vinci himself even used Burano lace in order to decorate the alter of Milan‘s famous Duomo. Outside of lace, Burano is known for its cheerful, brightly colored houses. Legend has it that the island’s fishermen traditionally painted their houses in bright colors so that they would be able to keep sight of them while fishing in the lagoon. Today, the houses on the island represent nearly every color of the rainbow—royal purple, deep blue, bright yellow, lime green.
Siena is Italy’s medieval heart and soul. Stretched across a Tuscan hill, Siena offers Italy's best medieval city experience. With red-brick streets lining every inch of the city, the town is an architectural time warp. At the heart of its Gothic-era identity, is its central piazza — Il Campo. This tilted shell-shaped "square" of red brick is the heart of the city and it’s also unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. However, if Il Campo is the heart of Siena, the Duomo (cathedral) is its soul. Sitting atop Siena's highest point and visible for miles around, the white and dark-green striped church is as over-the-top as Gothic gets. Inside and out, it's lavished with statues and mosaics. The heads of 172 popes peer down on all those who enter.
Perugia, the capital city of Umbria, oozes with charm (and chocolate) from almost every corner. It’s most famous chocolate dessert, Baci, or kisses is made with hazelnuts and milk chocolate, then wrapped with love notes written in 4 languages. Perugia hosts a free chocolate festival every year in October which attracts thousands of visitors. This year on October 18th, a few Italian artists will get to sculpt an 1100 kg block of chocolate as they choose. Outside of its chocolate roots, this was another Tuscan town that made me fall in love with the architecture.
It's been almost 7 years since I set foot in Italy, and it continues to be a destination I miss every single day. I have yet to find a place that I connected with as much as La Bella Italia. No matter who you are or how experienced you are as a traveler, this is a country that everyone should visit, and then revisit again in their lifetime.