In between jaunts on tiny electric buses and superfast expressways, we got to see a nice little chunk of Italy during our stay. We spent time in Rome, Siena, Prato, Florence, Lucca, and Venice.
Rome is an impressive place: it's an undeniably historic city and yet there's a strange balance between tourist attractions and day-to-day life. The Coliseum, for instance, is über-touristy — the interior is well-preserved but outside there are throngs of guides for hire and costumed gladiators posing for pictures — but just up the hill is a university in a much more secluded setting. The Pantheon, a building nearly 2,000 years old, has a modicum of tourist-oriented shops around it but otherwise blends in well with the area. For every stereotypical tourist trap there was a 10-minute walk to get at least somewhat away from the hordes of tourists and tourist shops.
For me, though, the real highlight of Rome was to see how people who actually live there go through their lives. Witness how many men and women in suits and dresses hop off a Vespa bound for a meeting. I was impressed also at how the government buildings, including the Prime Minister's residence, are so accessible that you can practically walk up to the front door. Historic buildings are just a fact of life. Our hotel had been built as a palace in the 14th century and I'm sure many of the little hole-in-the-wall places serving beer and pasta were in buildings just as old.
Lastly, the Vatican has the museum to end all museums. We withstood nearly hour-long lines just to enter St. Peter's Square until we learned that Pope Benedict XVI was actually speaking there, live. (We didn't stay long as we could only see him on video monitors, he was speaking Latin or Italian, and we're not Catholic. When the Pope is absent, so is the huge security line.) We then went around the block to enter the Vatican Museums. Wow. It's remarkable to see a culture with so much art they put it on every surface, including ceilings and floors, and they still have a museum complex so large it takes a couple of hours to get to the Sistine Chapel. Most of the sculptures and artwork on display are originals, too. Catholic or not, every visitor to Rome must visit the Vatican. Just schedule your visit around the Pope's to avoid delays.