To think of Italy in winter is to sigh a little because in memory it always seems to be summer there.
Italy is a land where the light is forever arranging itself to its best advantage. Think of the sound of cicadas in the afternoon, the craggy mountains, the lush Tuscan hills.
It's spellbinding - and it's time you made plans for another great escape there.
ROME - Through Eternity Tours
The Irish love affair with Italy always begins in Rome, of course. We love its ancient streets, its leafy trellises, the ochre walls of magic districts like Trastevere, with its open-air markets and its raucous street traffic.
We Irish also know that high above Trastevere in the gorgeous old church of San Pietro in Montorio, where the last High King of Ireland Hugh O'Neill has found his rest.
That fact alone connects us to four centuries of the Irish and Italian conversation, but there are so many more. If you visit this old church, and every Irish person should, you will notice a slow but steady progression of Irish pilgrims arriving from morning to night, coming to pay their respects to the O'Neill.
So because of our faith, traditions and history we can see Rome as our own. We can match its rhythms and interpret its privacies like a language we already half know.
If you are visiting Rome for the first time in 2020 you'll discover how linked the history of Ireland and Italy really are. To get a better idea of the city's history we strongly suggest that you start with the wonderful Through Eternity Tours, a bespoke tour company that takes you on a deep dive into all the folding centuries that have given this city and this nation its character.
We suggest you begin with the Rome At Twilight Among The Piazzas And Fountains: Evening Walking Tour.
Our guide was named Robert and he had arranged an itinerary that would take us to (and through) banner Roman locations like the Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, the Trevi fountain, the Spanish Steps and more.
But along the route, Robert had the look of someone about to do something wild. Follow me, he said, guiding us toward the doors of a luxury department store.
We followed him from the humid street into the hushed interior of la Rinascente, a swanky, multilevel fashion store. What on earth were we doing in here?
He darted ahead of us to the down escalator and then quickly beckoned us to follow. Within a minute we were all standing in front of a glass wall that runs for about half a city block.
“I don't normally take people here but you have to see it, he said. “Look!” Behind the wall was a massive and perfectly preserved aqueduct, obviously dating from the time of the Roman Empire.
It's below the city's current ground level, but it had been the ground level in Roman times. That's a great truth about this city, that it's built of strata after strata of what has preceded it.
Robert looked at it with the wonder of someone who was taking a Roman tour, not giving it, making us love him. I was thunderstruck by the scale, the size, the sheer built to last-ness of this epic salvo against time.
Two thousand years later water still runs through this wall believe it not, coming down fresh and clear from the mountains far outside the city. As a feat of ancient world engineering, it's simply staggering, because it was built 19 years before the birth of Christ.
Robert also took the time to notice the overlooked but telling details. Students of history, as well as guides to it, Through Eternity tour guides, have written books on their subjects and it shows.
This won't be a by-the-numbers experience, instead you will laugh, you'll be challenged and you will certainly come away feeling enriched, knowing the city better. The Through Eternity guides speak like people in love with their subject because they are.
Some people who have not visited Rome can picture it as a sort of endless architectural dig between fine restaurants. But that's not it at all. In fact it's one of the most vital cities you will ever visit and when you leave you will ache to return.
To see another vital side of Rome we suggest you take Through Eternity's immersive Early Morning Vatican Tour With The Sistine Chapel.
The experience is exactly what the billing describes, you'll be met near the entrance to the Vatican Museums early in the morning by your guide (get there early and you can have an espresso and croissant at the nearby coffee shop) .
Then, introductions made, you will arrive at the Vatican Museums a full hour before they open to the general public, allowing you space to explore the exhibits and to visit the Sistine Chapel when it is least busy.
Nothing will prepare you for what you are about to experience, however. St. Peter's makes Buckingham Palace look like a bit of a barn, by comparison, the scale and the sheer majesty is simply unparalleled on earth.
Make sure to contemplate the bust of Emperor Hadrian and his favorite Antinous, a reminder that Rome's history long predates the Christian ascendency and that imperial grandeur has been a feature of this city for millennia.
Our guide, who was delightfully erudite and no-nonsense, was an archeologist for whom hieroglyphics were like reading text messages, so the Egyptian contributions to Roman heritage were a fascinating sidebar to our tour.
She took our small group along at a stately pace through two millennia of art, culture and politics with the kind of humor and facility that made this one of the highlights of our visit.
The Sistine Chapel is an astonishment and here she wisely withdrew, leaving us silent and agog, which is the only way to take in this achievement. Later in Saint Peter's Basilica she pointed to the roof. Decorated with Inca gold, she said simply, adding, “blood money.”
The comments reminded us that the Vatican is at once part of Rome and yet distinct from it, and our guide helped us grasp all the seductions and tensions that have existed between it and the city since the time of St. Peter.
Rome has always had a complex relationship with the Vatican. This exhilarating tour will make you understand why.
VENICE - The Tour Guy
Venice exists in your mind before you first see it, but nothing can prepare you for this half floating world. Step out of the train station Santa Lucia and the first thing you'll see are the water taxis and gondolas that will ferry you to the heart of the city.
It's a heart-stopping moment, the first of many here. Even in summer at the height of the tourist season, it guards its majesty and so the only right way to see it all is from a boat.
“Every perfect traveler always creates the country where he travels,” wrote the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis and Venice may be the city where that idea proves most true.
To really grasp the history of Venice and to encounter the hidden parts that only the locals know we recommend you book The Tour Guy (a company run by immigrants like Curtis Kelly, an American with Irish heritage from County Cork).
We recommend beginning with the Venice in a Day Combo Tour with Gondola Ride. This full day tour is a wonderful introduction to the sights and sounds of the city if you're staying for a week or only a few days because you will catch all of Venice’s highlights. The six-hour tour includes skip the line tickets to St. Mark’s Basilica, a Venice walking tour, a Venice gondola ride, and a lively and informative English-speaking guide.
The shorter two and a half hour tour is called the Venice Highlights Tour with Gondola Ride and that's exactly what you can expect. St. Mark's Square and St. Mark's Basilica will be stops with your English speaking guide, as will the famous Rialto Bridge and you'll take a gondola ride in the company. Be sure to take the elevator up Saint Mark's Campanile, the view of San Giorgio and the wider Adriatic will take your breath away.
You can book food tours of Venice and you can elect to take a shorter tour of the Doge's Palace (if you're pressed for time) but for the celebrity treatment, The Tour Guy can also arrange private boat tours with an English speaking guide for you and your party.
For a special treat the VIP day-long tour (you can contact The Tour Guy to arrange one) is one of the most rewarding ways to see the city at a leisurely pace.
You can explore fascinating stops like the Jewish Ghetto (scene of Shakespeare's The Merchant Of Venice) where the temples were of necessity hidden in plain sight, or you can visit a former nunnery that commands one of the most stunning private views in the city (a place far, far from the tourist hordes).
You'll do all in the company of the a spirited and insightful local guide who will show you a Venice that the cruise liner crowds will never know and you'll do it from the luxury of your own private boat (they'll even direct you toward the best cicchetti in town).
If you want the truly deluxe first trip, don't miss this.
No one embraces a nation like an immigrant and what really makes The Tour Guy company special is that it is made up of people from all over the world who visited Rome and Italy, fell hard for it and made it home.
With operations in Italy, Spain and France, they have grown based on the quality of their offerings and the value they represent. To book your own tour for 2020 CLICK HERE.
The trip includes St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace as well as the hidden corners of the city that few visitors ever get to see.
Another gorgeous Through Eternity all day tour is the Murano, Burano and Torcello Islands Tour with a visit to Venice. The nearby islands are for many visitors an unexpected highlight of their tours.
From the artisan glassmaking on Murano to Burano’s brightly colored houses and fishermen’s huts to the surprising origin story of Venetian civilization on the isolated Torcello, you'll be captivated.
Remember it may be winter now, but it's always summer in Italy - and as an Irish person no matter when you travel you'll feel strangely at home from the moment you arrive.
Make your plans now! Tell them we sent you!