“Makes me want to pack my bag and follow Van Allen’s alluring suggestions. Andiamo!
—Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun
“Van Allen warms the room with her memories and imagination…precise and true.”
—The New York Times
Following the critically acclaimed 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go, Susan Van Allen adds new gems to her selection of the best spots for female travelers in Italy’s most popular cities, along with enticing Golden Day itineraries to make vacation dreams come true. Like a savvy traveler girlfriend whispering in your ear, she guides readers to masterpieces where women are glorified—from Rome’s Pieta to Florence’s Birth of Venus—and to best spots for wine tasting, chocolate, gelato, artisan shopping experiences to meet leather craftsmen or glass blowers, and places for adventures such as rolling pasta or rowing like a gondolier. She provides fresh, practical tips giving readers an insider’s secrets on what to pack, the best places to get their hair styled, and how to shop for bargain souvenirs.
Whatever your mood or budget, whether it’s your first or twenty-first visit to Italy, 50 Places in Rome, Florence, and Venice Every Woman Should Go opens the door to extraordinary experiences that fully immerse you in the beautiful, fascinating, and delicious pleasures of the Bel Paese.
“A wonderful gift for any woman traveling to Italy. With Susan’s advice you won’t be overwhelmed and you’ll discover how nurturing it is to travel in a country that has honored us since we all descended from Venus.”
—Marybeth Bond, author of Gutsy Women and Best Girlfriend Getaways Worldwide
“Susan Van Allen might be the best girlfriend you never met…a virtual passport to a girl-friendly ride up and down the boot.” —Pittsburgh Tribune
Italy’s Big Three
By Susan Van Allen
Rome, Florence, Venice… Say the words and iconic images emerge: Colosseum, Duomo, Grand Canal.
These places first dazzled me in postcards, sent by Papa, my grandfather, who traveled back to Italy, his homeland, every August. They’d clunk into the metal mailbox of the ranch house I grew up in on the Jersey shore. I’d stare into those postcards of fountains and piazzas, glancing up at our flat backyard of scruffy grass and a rusty jungle gym, Country Squire Station Wagon in the driveway. Could this be real?
Travel dreams came true, and I stepped off trains into the abundant pleasures of Italy, beyond postcards, to the taste of my first Roman artichoke, smells of leather shops in Florence, songs of gondoliers.
Decades of travel and making lists of advice for girlfriends inspired my first book, 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go. Wonderful surprises followed—letters, meetings with readers from far-flung places, who came back with thanks and stories of their Italian adventures.
Men tell me: “It’s not just for women!” I agree, though the fact is this: Something clicks with us females, from the moment we touch down in Italy, and we’re surrounded by goddesses and Madonnas. We immediately feel lightened up, unbound, welcomed by the spirit of the pleasure-loving goddess Venus and the compassionate Blessed Virgin Mother, who side by side inspire us to enjoy every step we take.
This book is an invitation to discover the Big Three beyond the postcards and to revel in their feminine appeals—from such delights as paintings in Florence where females are glorified, churches in Rome that honor female saints, and places where women have flourished, such as Peggy Guggenheim’s museum in Venice. I guide you to have fun in my favorite caffès, gelaterias, shop in the best places for ceramics or jewelry, and treat yourself to adventures—be it rowing in Venice, jewelry making in Florence, or a cooking school in Rome.
With so many treasures to choose from, Italy may be overwhelming, so I urge you to follow your mood and open yourself to spontaneity. Rather than Must See lists, I propose Golden Days—matching one site with a nearby great restaurant, not packing too much in, but savoring your time Italian style, at an Old World pace.
May you find yourself inside those postcard images, experiencing The Real Rome, Florence, and Venice—blending in with all their beauties that welcome you with open arms.
The Campidoglio, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill
You’ll never forget your first time. You’ll be walking along or speeding in a cab from the airport and then will appear… the Colosseum…the Arco di Tito…the whole glorious spread of jaw-dropping triumph and ruin.
It’s a place to let your imagination run wild. Picture women rattling tambourines in torch-lit processions, chariots carrying tanned muscular men in togas to the baths.
Goddesses’ temples, Empresses’ tombs, and churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary are all to be discovered in the thousand- plus years of history that surround you. It’s impossible to absorb it all in one shot. Hiring a good guide is best since hardly any of the sculptures and ruins are marked. Or just stroll around and surrender to your fantasies.
Here are some places where women take center stage:
The Michelangelo-designed piazza is a perfect place to begin, where Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom, Rome, and War, sits on a throne holding her mighty spear—just behind Marcus Aurelius on his horse. To either side of Minerva are the Capitoline Museums, packed with sculptures of characters who once roamed the area surrounding you.
In the Palazzo Nuovo (museum to the left of Minerva) head to the first-floor hallway to see The Capitoline Venus. The Goddess of Love and Beauty is featured in a sunlit niche, posed as Venus Pudica (modest Venus), with one hand over her breast, the other covering her Cupid’s cloister. Yes, she’s modest, but also teasing, as if to say: “Look what I’m hiding…”
Venus was the deity who flitted from passion to passion. She was married to Vulcan, God of Fire, but even the best couple’s counselor couldn’t have kept this beauty tied to that angry, crippled god. Venus had hot affairs with Mars (God of War), the devastatingly handsome Adonis, and disguised herself as a mortal for trysts with men she found attractive. Every year she bathed herself in the sea from which she was born to renew her virginity.
In the same hallway, you’ll see a statue of a Roman Woman Dressed as Venus (hardly dressed), proving how closely Romans associated themselves with the goddess. The Roman woman breaks out of the Modest Venus pose, standing proud and naked with one hand on her hip. For a laugh farther down the hall, check out the Drunken Old Woman, who’s crouched, laughing, and guzzling a jug of wine.
Santa Maria d’Aracoeli
(Saint Mary of the Altar of Heaven)
Up steep steps from the Palazzo Nuovo is this red brick church, dedicated to Mary. It was built over a temple that was dedicated to Juno (Goddess of Marriage). The legend goes that in ancient times a sibyl (wise woman prophet) appeared here to Emperor Augustus and foretold the coming of Christ. The stairs were called The Stairway to Heaven in Medieval times, when women wanting a child or husband would climb them on their knees.
The Roman Forum
Here in the ongoing archaeological excavation, you’ll see ancient Rome’s largest temple, dedicated to Venus and Rome. It was built during Emperor Hadrian’s time, now distinguished by its large curved half roof. Once it held two humongous statues of those beloved deities, sitting on thrones, back to back. Roman priests would sacrifice female animals to these goddesses to bring good fortune in war and business.
Nearby is the Temple of the Vestal Virgins, now rows of pillars with remains of female statues.
The Cult of Vesta, Goddess of Hearth and Home, was the oldest of the ancient world. Some say this cult still exists in modern Italy, where la famiglia remains the country’s core. Back then, girls from the ages of six to ten were chosen from patrician families to become Vestals, taking vows of chastity and service for thirty years. They tended the temple flames, made salt cakes, and were the only women presiding at rituals.
The upside for the Vestals, in a time when women didn’t have that much freedom, was that they could come and go as they pleased and got perks all over town, like special seats at games and festivals. The downside was gruesome: if they let Vesta’s flame go out, they’d be flogged, and if they had sex with anyone, they’d be buried alive.
The Palatine Hill
Walking up from the Forum, you come to this pretty and serene place, where Romulus (great grandson of Venus) chose to begin the city. It went on to become the Beverly Hills of Ancient Rome, where noble palaces were built. In the sixteenth century the Farnese family created gardens here, so you can wander through rows of boxwood shrubs, cypress trees, laurel and rose bushes, and enjoy lovely views of the Forum below.
As for the palaces, the Home of Augustus is now open to the public, but be prepared to wait in a long line to see the emperor’s frescos unless you get there when the site opens. His wife Livia’s house is going through restoration, and you may be lucky to find it open and then be treated to a vast arched space with frescos of vibrant garlands, symbols of Augustus’s victories. The Palatine is a great place to fantasize about the grand days of Livia and Augustus, who ruled Rome for forty-five years, bringing the city into its Golden Age.
Back in 39 B.C. just after Julius Caesar’s assassination, Livia was a beautiful nineteenyear- old, married to the much older Tiberius Claudius Nero and pregnant with their second child. Along came handsome, young, Octavius (soon to be Augustus), a rising star on the military scene, married with a pregnant wife. Octavius fell in love with Livia, divorced his wife the day she gave birth, and married the pregnant Livia. Livia’s old husband gave her away at the ceremony, even throwing in a dowry. It turned out to be a good political move for all involved, and in those days the citizenry didn’t even blink over it.
Octavius became Emperor Caesar Augustus and ruled Rome with his perfect mate Livia, who took charge of all the biz at home when he set off to conquer distant lands. Livia was an exemplary Roman wife. She was famously chaste, “worked wool” (made her husband’s togas), and never showed off with fancy jewelry or dress. The couple lived simply here throughout their fifty-one years of marriage, with Livia putting up with philandering Augustus, who was known for his S&M exploits. Together they revived Rome, restoring monuments in the Forum and building new ones throughout the city.
Livia has become famous in fiction, particularly through Robert Graves’s I Claudius, where she’s portrayed as a conniving woman who poisoned potential heirs to make sure her family line would inherit the throne. Whatever version of the story you believe, Livia’s descendants did end up ruling Rome. She died at the ripe old age of eighty-six and was honored as Diva Augusta. Her image was revered in the streets that surround you, carried in celebrations by elephant-drawn carriages.
To get a more vivid experience of Livia’s lifestyle, head to the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, near Roma Termini. The entire garden room of her suburban villa has been moved to the top floor of this museum, so you can stand in the midst of amazing frescos that feature a harmonious, abundant landscape of trees, flowers, and birds.
Capitoline Museums: Tuesday through Sunday, 9-8 (www.turismoroma.it)
Roman Forum and Palatine Hill: Daily, 8:30 until one hour before sunset. For opening times of House of Augustus and Livia’s House (www.coopculture.it)
Palazzo Massimo alle Terme: Largo di Villa Peretti 1 (near Termini), Tuesday-Sunday 9-7:30 (www.archeoromabeniculturali.it)
Golden Day: Time your visit so you’ll be on the Palatine Hill at sunset, then head to Enoteca Provincia Romana for an aperitivo (5:30-7:30). This is an excellent wine bar that features wines and cuisine of the Lazio region, facing Trajan’s column. (Via Foro Traiano 82, 066 994 0273, lunch reservations essential, closed Sunday and Monday for lunch, www.provinciaromana.it)
TIPS: Don’t go to the Forum between 10 and 2, the heaviest tourist times. The museums, on the other hand, are rarely crowded, and in addition to the Palazzo Nuovo, the Palatine Museum, with its mosaics and sculptures, is a good choice.
TOURS For the best guided small group tours, contact: Context Travel at www.contexttravel.com.
RECOMMENDED READING A Traveller in Rome by H. V. Morton