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Venice: Serene, Decadent and Still Kicking

See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks. Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. Get ready to be immersed in the magic of this continent's most romantic city...Venice.

Venice, more than any other European city, has an endlessly seductive charm. It was nicknamed for centuries La Serenissima, the most serenely beautiful one and you're about to see why.

After sorting through the monuments of its powerful past, we'll trace its decline from Europe's most powerful city to its most hedonistic one. We'll cruise the Grand Canal, luxuriate in a venerable caf, and slurp the fishy local cuisine with local friends. We'll become as anonymous as possible in this city of masks, be dazzled by masterpieces of the Venetian Renaissance, and get intimate with the city of Casanova...on a gondola.

At the north end of the Italian Adriatic Sea is Venice It is a fish-shaped island connected to the mainland by a long causeway. Its main drag the Grand Canal starts at the fish's mouth and winds through the center. For this visit, we're staying near the Rialto Bridge a short walk from St. Mark's Square and everything else we'll see.

Venice, more than any other city, is the place to get out early or stay out late to be swept away. On every square is a surprise and around each corner is an excuse to savor the magic of the city. We'll enjoy the honeymoon qualities of this city later. But all this romance sits on a practical foundation of political and economic might.

With mountains of capital, plenty of traders with ready ships, an awesome military, and a sophisticated system of finance, Venice was a commercial powerhouse among the six biggest cities in Europe. In the early 15th century, of its estimated 180,000 citizens, nearly 1,000 were of Rockefeller wealth and power.

And this was the Venetian Republic's political and religious center St. Mark's Square, or Piazza San Marco, with the Basilica of St. Mark's and the Doge's Palace.

The Doge's Palace was built to show off the power and wealth of the republic and to remind visitors that Venice was number one.

This stairway from the palace courtyard with Mars and Neptune symbolizing power on land and sea and the winged lion representing the city itself was a suitably intimidating entry.

The Doge with his cabinet ruled here in the Collegio. For four centuries from about 1150 to 1550 this palace was the most powerful piece of real estate in Europe.

The sprawling palace is a maze of richly decorated rooms. Here in the Senate Hall, nobles met, debated, and passed laws. They were inspired by Tintoretto's Triumph of Venice, which shows the city always represented blond, blue-eyed and virtuous in heaven among the Greek Gods, receiving the wealth of the sea.

The Doge was something of an elected king which only makes sense in an aristocratic republic like Venice. Technically, he was a noble selected by other nobles to oversee the carrying out of their laws and decisions.

The Hall of the Great Council is a vast wooden structure made possible by Venice's shipbuilding expertise. Tintoretto's monsterpiece, Paradise the largest oil painting anywhere reminded lawmakers that making wise decisions would ultimately put you in the company of 500 saints.

The famous Bridge of Sighs connects the palace with its infamous prison. This is the last view of Venician beauty many prisoners saw on their way to jail.

It took more than great art to keep the most serene republic serene. Opponents of the government were dealt with swiftly and decisively. This prison held nobles and commoners alike. The great Venetian rogue Casanova did time in a cell like this.

While this prison was considered relatively comfortable for its day, I think whiling away in here, with so much beauty so close, must have been a particularly gruesome punishment.

The Doge's Palace kept an armory on display an intimidating array of weaponry designed to dishearten potential adversaries. It comes with some fun curiosities: tiny crossbows, thumbscrews, and a particularly disheartening chastity belt.

The splendor of Venice was built upon a foundation of economic and military might. This is the Arsenal Europe's first great military industrial complex. Behind these gates, with as many as 3,000 workers using an early form of assembly line production, Venice could produce one warship a day.

The Arsenal put the "fear of Venice" into visiting rulers. When the king of France came to town, he was taken here for a humbling shipbuilding spectacle: the creation of a warship before his very eyes.

Then, after a quick glide down this canal, the vessel was completely outfitted and ready to help bolster Venetian dominance of the Mediterranean.

Power in Venice came from more than aggressive merchants and ruthless leaders. It came from some ancient bones. To gain religious importance and a kind of legitimacy, the Venetians needed just the right relics. St. Mark actually traveled in this area and he's credited with bringing Christianity to this region. His bones would work perfectly.

So as we can see in this mosaic, in 828, Venetian merchants smuggled Mark's remains out of Egypt and into the church shown here as it looked in the 13th century. Mark looking pretty grumpy after the long voyage became the city's patron saint and his symbol the winged lion became the symbol of Venice.

The grand church of St. Mark's was built in a distinctly Eastern style. Its domes and intricate exterior details remind us of Venice's close ties with the East and Byzantium.

The church is covered with mosaics. And in good medieval style, they all tell Bible stories. The narthex or vestibule features Old Testament scenes. Here's the story of Joseph, whose brothers first threw him into a well and then sold him into slavery in Egypt.

And inside, the church is covered with New Testament lessons. The remains of St. Mark lie beneath the high altar under a sumptuous 14th-century altarpiece of gold and precious stones.

With its powerful government, an easily defendable position, and the relics of St. Mark, the scattered communities of the lagoon coalesced around Venice, which became the regional powerhouse.

The basilica is decorated with columns and statues pillaged from its enemies. The style? I'd call it "early ransack." Of all the loot ornamenting the church, perhaps its grandest prize is the set of horses, which for centuries looked out over the square. While these are copies, the originals are inside the church.

These much-coveted bronze horses are a trophy befitting the city's power. According to legend they were cast for Alexander the Great, taken by Nero to Rome, then taken by Constantine to his new capital in the East...Constantinople. Later the Venetians grabbed them, only to have Napoleon swipe them to decorate an arch in Paris. Today, they're back in what Venetians believe is their rightful home.

St. Mark's bell tower or campanile towers 300 feet above the square. For nearly a thousand years the original tower stood here like an exclamation point proclaiming power and greatness of the Venetian empire. Then, one morning in 1902 it groaned and crumpled into a heap of bricks.

Today it's rebuilt and an elevator zips you to a commanding view. For an ear-shattering experience, be here on the top of the hour.

Venice lies in the center of a big lagoon. It sits on pilings...millions of tree trunks driven deep into clay. About 25 miles of canals drain the city, dumping like streams into this Grand Canal. It's a carfree maze of 100 islands laced together by 400 bridges and a vast web of alleys and canalside walkways. With a shrinking population and in a state of elegant decay, it survives on the artificial respirator of tourism.

Survey the city cheap and easy by riding a vaporetto down the Grand Canal. Venice's public transit system is a fleet of motorized bus-boats called vaporetti. These work like city buses except that they never get a flat, the stops are docks, and if you get off between stops, you may drown. Snag a front seat for the best views.

The city's main thoroughfare is busy with traffic. With water taxis, police boats, delivery boats, post boats and over 400 gondoliers joyriding around the churning vaporetti, there's a lot of congestion on the Grand Canal.

Venice is a city of palaces. The most lavish face the Grand Canal. This is the only way to really appreciate the front doors of this historic chorus line of mansions, most from the 14th and 15th centuries when Venice was Europe's richest trading power.

Strict laws prohibit any changes in these buildings. Many of the grand buildings are now vacant and run-down simply too expensive to maintain. Others still harbor chandeliered elegance above mossy, empty ground floors.

Palaces like these are reminders that Venetian merchants amassed lots of capital and their trading fleet dominated the Mediterranean. Back then, having a huge merchant fleet made you a naval power. Cleverly, Venice agreed to defend Byzantine and Crusader ports in return for free trade privileges. This made the eastern Mediterranean a virtual free trade zone and an aggressive Venice very rich.

As Venetian nobles grew wealthy, they built lavish palaces like this one owned by the Pisani family for nearly 400 years. Their counterparts on the mainland fortified their places with heavy stone and

tall towers, but with their natural lagoon defenses, Venetian palazzos could be luxurious rather than fortified.

Each palace served all the family's needs luxurious mansion, business offices, and import/export warehouse all under one roof.

The goods in the case of the Pisani family furs, salt, cotton and coffee came off ships through this loading dock.

The Grand Canal cuts Venice in half and has only three bridges. To cross, you can save time and energy by hopping a traghetto one of the ferry gondolas, which shuttle pedestrians back and forth at strategic locations. They're marked on maps. What to pay? I observe and copy. It's customary to stand. Can't afford a private gondola? You could take two round-trips on this for the cost of an ice cream cone.

The grandest bridge over the Grand Canal is the Rialto. With a span of nearly 50 yards and foundations stretching about 200 yards on either side, it was an impressive engineering feat back in the 1500s.

Originally, Venice had two major centers of power one at San Marco and one here at Rialto. Rialto, which left the politics to San Marco, has long been the commercial district of Venice.

Locals call the summit of this bridge the "icebox of Venice" for its cool breeze. Tourists call it a great place to kiss. Venice is a great place to fall in love, enjoy a honeymoon...or a special anniversary.

For a relaxing bit of that uniquely Venetian dolce vita, visit the venerable Caf Florian. This most famous of Venetian cafs and one of the first places in Europe to serve coffee has been the place for a discreet rendezvous since 1720. Today, whenever locals want to impress visitors, they take them here for a drink. In these richly decorated 18th-century rooms Casanova, Lord Byron, and Charles Dickens have all happily paid too much for their prosecco.

While locals huddle inside, tourists enjoy sitting under the stars with the music. While standing room is free, a drink is expensive, and then the price about doubles if the orchestra's playing. But you're welcome to take all the time you want...and how do you put a price on this atmosphere? To me, this scene evokes the last chapter of the Venetian Republic when it began its elegant decline.

With the discovery of America and new trade routes to the East, Venice's power plummeted. As Venice fell, its appetite for decadence grew. Through the 17th and 18th centuries, the Venetians partied on the wealth accumulated through earlier centuries as a trading power.

Remnants of this decadent past are everywhere in the city, like its many colorful mask shops. These icons of Venice are enticing and they come with some history.

While Venetian nobles were plenty rich, life in the Middle Ages was generally tough. And it got tougher each Lent a time of austerity leading up to Easter. Throughout Europe, rich and poor alike enjoyed a burst of pre-Lenten fun during the annual anything-goes festival called Carnavale. It's like Mardi Gras.

Celebrated with particular gusto in Venice, these masks were a key part giving everyone anonymity to really cut loose. And today, local artisans keep shoppers well supplied with these icons of Venice.

Along with masks, shoppers target Venetian glass. The glass industry has long been important in Venice and it still is for tourists. You can adorn your palazzo with a brilliant chandelier of Venetian glass...or pick up a vase, or some beads.

As life got frilly, so did the music. Many enjoy a baroque concert in this most baroque city. Vivaldi is as trendy here as Strauss is in Vienna and Mozart in Salzburg. The general rule of thumb musicians in suits and ties offer more serious performances, those in tights and powdered wigs offer better spectacle.

Piero: This is La Serenissima Republic, the very very beautiful republic. My Venetian friend Piero lives for his boat and he's taking me for a cruise. Rick: This is a small town. Piero: Yes, this is a small town, and the people, water people, everyone knows everyone. Today Venice is a small town home to about 65,000 people, down from a peak of around 200,000 in its glory days. Most visitors are day-trippers swooping in from cruise ships or staying at hotels in nearby beach resorts. Rick: So in the morning everybody comes in. Piero: Exactly, and now everybody goes out Rick: Venice has a different personality in the evening. Piero: Yes, there are two kinds of Venice, the locals at night and in the daytime, the invasion. Rick: The invasion of tourists. I think that the Venetians like boats.

Piero: Yes, it's the life. Rick: Can you imagine a life with out boats? Piero: No! What is this? Ristorante da Raffaele is a good place for Venetian cuisine on a quiet canal. It was a haunt of the avant garde a few generations ago. Today it's on a main gondolier route. While their multi-lingual menu is designed for the tourists, locals stick with the daily specials. Piero: These are the chef's suggestions, and they are fresh day by day. In Venice, I sleep in the old center ideally in a 400-year-old hotel, waking to the clang of church bells. Family-run, centuries old, friendly, characteristic and well-located, Pensione Gueratto is the kind of place I recommend in my guidebooks and it's my home in Venice just around the corner from the Rialto Bridge.

From the Rialto, a street called the Mercerie leads to St. Mark's. This is the tourists' main drag with human traffic jams and a gauntlet of shopping temptations. Many tourists as if in a knick-knackinduced trance never get beyond this one glitzy street.

But savvy travelers explore Venice through the back door. Walk and walk to the far reaches of town. Don't worry about getting lost. Keep reminding yourself, "I'm on an island, and I can't get off."

The worst-case scenario your island ends and you have to enjoy a drink on the edge of town while studying your map.

Invest in a good map. If you do lose your way, pop into any business and ask for their card it comes with a map and a prominent "you are here."

Since there are no real street names, you navigate by landmarks. Follow the directional arrows or simply ask a local, "Dov'" that's where is "San Marco?" "Dov'e Rialto?" They'll point you in the right direction...we're heading for the Venice's fish market behind the Rialto.

Each morning the fish market is busy with locals stocking up. The first Venetians were farmers from the mainland. After the fall of Rome they became fishermen to avoid being trampled by rampaging barbarians. They took refuge here in the lagoon where they caught and sold the fish. And fish still plays a big role in Venetian cuisine.

Wandering away from the bustle, you stumble upon some shy grandeur, like this picturesque gondola workshop. The workmen, traditionally from Italy's mountains they need to be good with wood maintain a refreshingly alpine-feel in this delightful little corner of Venice.

Because nobles originally settled on their own little islets, the "old center" is everywhere and you'll find palaces scattered all over. Eventually, island communities decided to join, or literally "bridge," with others. Building bridges required shoring up the canals. Soon paved canal sidewalks appeared.

While surrounded by canals, Venice had no natural source of drinking water. But a thousand years ago, residents devised a way of using town squares as rainwater collection systems. The rain would drain through these marble grills, through a sand filtering system, and channels would direct the water to central well. Only after it devised this safe local source of drinking water was Venice's population able to grow.

Hundreds of these rain collection systems provided drinking water right up until 1886 when an aqueduct was opened, bringing water in from nearby mountains.

For an appropriate meal during your back lane adventure, pop into a bar serving cicchetti or Venetian hors d'oeuvres. This is a great way to nibble a variety of dishes. With a good regional wine in a rustic setting you can eat cheaply and make new friends. Alessandro: You have all these kinds of cicchetti, which are to help the wine. You have your wine and you are welcome to look at the displays and even if you don't know what they are you can point to the ones you would like to try. Rick: What do you say for just a little bit? Alessandro: You would say ciccetto, this means just one. A nice thing here is that we don't have so many cars so we enjoy the wine and then walk home. Art lovers can spend their days touring Venice's top-notch art galleries. The Peggy Guggenheim collection is a wonderland of early 20th-century art. And the Accademia, with its low-key facade, is packed with old Venetian masterpieces.

But my favorite art experience in Venice is seeing art in the setting for which it was designed...that's in situ at the Chiesa dei Frari.

The Franciscan "Church of the Friars" and the art that decorates it is warmed by the spirit of St. Francis. It features the work of three great Renaissance masters: Donatello, Bellini, and Titian each showing worshippers the glory of God in human terms.

In Donatello's wood carving of St. John the Baptist, the prophet of the desert dressed in animal skins and almost anorexic from his diet of bugs 'n honey announces the coming of the Messiah. Donatello was a Florentine working at the dawn of the Renaissance.

Nearby, Bellini's Madonna and Saints was painted later by the father of the Venetian Renaissance in a softer, more Venetian style. Renaissance humanism demanded Madonnas and saints that were accessible and human, and Bellini places them in a physical setting so beautiful it creates its own mood of serene holiness.

Finally, glowing red and gold like a stained glass window over the high altar, Titian's Assumption sets the tone of exuberant beauty found in this otherwise sparse church. Titian's complex composition draws you right to the triumphant Mary as she joins God in heaven.

And for open-air art, you need only to look at the canals. Venice's sleek and graceful gondolas are a symbol of the city. From the start, boats were the way to get around among the island communities of the lagoon. To navigate over the shifting sand bars, the boats were flat and the captains stood up to see. Today's gondolas still come with a captain standing up and a flat bottom with no rudder, or keel. They're built with a slight curve so that a single oar on the side propels them in a straight line.

A gondola ride is a traditional must for romantics. Gondolas are moored everywhere. Just settle on a price and hop in. The 40-minute rides are expensive but you can divide the cost by up to six people. Since you might get a fun tour or impromptu conversation with your gondolier, talk with several and choose the one you enjoy the most. Rick: Tell me about Marco Polo. Gondolier: Marco Polo was an explorer born in Venice in 1261. On a gondola you glide through your own parallel Venice far from the hub-bub of modern tourism. Lonely bridges, canals without sidewalks, echoes of the past and reflections of once-upon-a-time grandeur. This is just one more way to yield to the seductive charm of this most serene city. Timeless, enchanting, captivating I hope you've enjoyed the magic of Venice. I'm Rick Steves missing my wife more than ever. Keep on travelin'. Ciao.

Venice Side-trips: the Best of Veneto

Hi, I'm Rick Steves with more of the best of Europe. This time we're back in Venice. But this great city's only our springboard for exploring the gems of the mainland surrounding Venice the Veneto. It's one of the overlooked corners of Italy.

In its heyday Venice ruled an empire with trading posts stretching all the way to Greece. It controlled this lagoon and a good part of the Italian mainland as well and that's where we're heading.

After jetting about the Venetian lagoon, we'll witness the restoration of precious Giotto frescos in Padova, go on a Palladian pilgrimage in Vicenza, pay our respects to Juliet in Verona, and drink a little grappa. Our finale: Ravenna's mosaics the best of Byzantium anywhere in Europe.

Italy's Venice sits at the top of the Adriatic Sea. From this homebase, day-tripping by train, we'll explore the region called Veneto, visiting Padova, Vicenza, and Verona, and then on to Ravenna. But first we'll explore the Venetian Lagoon.

Venice was born in mud like this. After Rome fell, farmers on the mainland were sick and tired of being overrun by barbarians and moved out into this lagoon and hoped the barbarians didn't like water.

Today's lagoon comes with reminders of its first inhabitants, those farmers who became sea-faring merchants, dredging canals, pounding in millions of timbers for foundations, and building communities that ultimately coalesced around what became the economic superpower of the Middle Ages Venice.

But those first settlements were humble. Torcello about a half hour by boat from Venice is where mainlanders first settled. Once a thriving community of thousands, it was decimated by malaria and today only its fine church remains.

This is the oldest church in the Venice. It's from the 7th century and it was the seat of the bishop of Torcello.

Earlier today, this place was busy with tourists. I am here at 5:30 p.m. I've got it nearly to myself. All over Italy, to enjoy peace and quiet, sightsee late in the day.

While tour boats zip quickly from island to island, regular ferryboats connect Venice with neighboring lagoon communities in a more relaxed and less expensive way.

The next island over, Burano, was first a fishing town. Later it thrived as a lace-making center and now it's popular with side-trippers for its lace and pastel ambience. Once sleepy, its main center is now pretty crowded with tourists. With the island's shrinking population down to about 4,000, locals say anything with a door is a shop.

Burano's lace making heritage goes back 500 years. And Lady Emma with eyes sharp as ever has been tying knots for 70. Rather than using bobbins, women make Burano's beautiful handmade lace with only needles and thread.

The town's back lanes give you a candid peek at a peaceful slice of the Venetian lagoon most visitors miss. When I asked Senora Emma about Burano's leaning tower. She said, "I will fall and you will fall, but our tower will stand forever." Rick: So if you want to go around the island, how long does it take at this speed? Piero: It takes twenty to twenty five minutes. Rick: When you have a boat you have freedom, it gives you a different Venice you know? Piero: Yes, it gives you another way. My friend Piero is giving me a quick but circuitous trip back to Venice...Venetians still love their boats. Piero spends his free time in what he always calls his "parallel Venice." Piero: Ok this is the Moreno faro stop. It is near the faro. Rick: What is faro? Piero: It is this one. Rick: Oh, it's the lighthouse! Piero: Yes, precisely. We are in Moreno now. It is the glass blowing factory highland. Rick: So this is all the glass. Piero: This is just a glass blowing factory. There are many here, but people come from all over to buy glass and see the show.

Until modern times, Venice was accessible only by boat. Then in 1846 this two-mile-long causeway with train tracks and a highway added later by Mussolini connected it to the rest of Italy.

Venice's train station is one of the city's few modern buildings. While it has all the services, it's generally packed. I get my train tickets and tourist information in the town center with fewer lines. Right now we're day-tripping to the mainland.

Four great cities Padova, Vicenza, Verona, and Ravenna are each within an hour or so of our homebase in Venice. While Venice seems to be sinking under its crowds of tourists, these towns are generally overlooked.

This part of Italy the mainland around Venice is called the Veneto. It's basically the land Venice ruled from about the 15th century until Napoleon came.

Padova has long been a university town. Living under Venetian rule for four centuries seemed only to sharpen its independent spirit. Nicknamed "the brain of Veneto," Padova's prestigious university, founded in 1222, is one of the first, greatest, and most progressive in Europe. Long a haven for free thinking, it attracted intellectuals from far and wide.

The great astronomer Copernicus made some of his important discoveries here. And Galileo notorious for disagreeing with the Church's views on science called his 18 years on the faculty here the best of his life.

These students are surrounded by memories of illustrious alumni including the first women ever to receive a university degree in 1678.

And just upstairs is Europe's first great anatomy theater from the 1500s. While strictly forbidden by the Church, students would pack this theater to watch professors dissect human cadavers. If the Church came a- knockin', the table could be flipped, allowing the human corpse to fall into the river below and be replaced with an animal instead.

Padova's old town, even when crowded with today's students, is a colonnaded time-tunnel experience. And Padova's museums and churches hold their own in Italy's artistic big league.

The Scrovegni Chapel is the art treasure of Padova. During our visit it's closed. But we're allowed a peek inside while a painstaking restoration project is stripping away the dirt and repairing bad restoration jobs of the past in order to bring back the brilliance of Giotto's most complete and mature work.

Before restoration, these frescoes hell. But after all this careful work, we'll once again enjoy the genius of Giotto. His groundbreaking ability to tell a story showing physical and psychological depth back in the 1300s provided a foundation for the great artists of the Renaissance to build upon.

All over Europe, huge efforts like this are returning gloomy and crumbled masterpieces to their original splendor. The Scrovegni Chapel will join the ranks of Europe's most prized works of art. Considered too fragile to be seen by huge numbers of people, sites like this are open only to small groups of visitors that must call in advance to make a viewing appointment.

Padova's other top sight is the Basilica of St. Anthony. For nearly 800 years this church with the tomb of Friar Anthony of Padova has been one of Christianity's most popular shrines. The church begun a year after he died, in 1232, is filled with magnificent art. A group of bronze statues by Donatello the Crucifixion, Mary, and Padova's six favorite saints graces the high altar.

And the side chapel containing St Anthony's tomb is a Renaissance masterpiece from 1500 with nine marble reliefs showing scenes and miracles from the life of the saint. The pilgrims believe Anthony is their protector, a confidant an intercessor for the poor. Votives from the faithful ask for help or give thanks for miracles they believe he's performed. By placing their hand on his tomb while saying a silent prayer, pilgrims show devotion to Anthony and feel the saint's presence.

Next, behind the high altar, pilgrims visit the relics of the saint these are considered miraculously preserved: his jawbone, tongue and vocal chords. These relics befit the saint who couldn't stop teaching, preaching, and praying.

Even military commanders like this powerful Venetian, just outside the basilica wanted to be close to St. Anthony. This statue also by the innovative Donatello is famous as the first equestrian statue of its size cast out of bronze since ancient Roman times.

Padova's vast 13th-century Palazzo della Ragione once the town's medieval law courts now hosts a sprawling market. The misty morning set-up has changed little over the centuries as merchants prepare to sell their goods. For 800 years shoppers have come here for the best Veneto produce.

A highlight in public markets at this time of the year is the wild mushrooms, which seem to come in endless shapes and sizes. And look at the varieties of rice, they are a Veneto specialty ideal to give your risotto that special twist. The lineage of these merchants stretches back centuries to a time when Venice was the regional powerhouse.

Around the 15th century, as new competition began biting into their trade profits, Venetian merchants began investing in agriculture and built lavish homes on the mainland. The countryside just outside Padova and throughout Veneto is ornamented with graceful villas like this.

The Brenta Riviera, a canal stretching from Venice to Padova, is lined with these dreamy villas of Venetian nobles. Most were designed by or in the style of Andrea Palladio.

Palladio followed the ancient Roman style temple-like pediments and columns...all symmetrical and with a classical dignity. Often considered by many the last great architect of the Renaissance, Palladio's influence stretched far and wide even Tomas Jefferson took note.

If this looks familiar it's because it inspired the building on the back of our nickel Jefferson's Monticello. Palladio, who considered nature a theater for his work, had a knack for using the setting for dramatic effect. His Rotunda is one of the most imitated buildings in the world.

Vicenza is the city of Palladio and to many architects a visit here is almost a pilgrimage. Walking down Vicenza's main drag, Corso Andrea Palladio, you'll see why they call Vicenza "Venezia on terra firma" Venice on solid ground. It's a stately string of Renaissance palaces and Palladian facades.

Piazza Signori has been Vicenza's main square since Roman times. The two 15th-century columns one topped by the winged lion were built by the Venetians when they took over Vicenza in the early 1400s. The commanding Basilica Palladiana dominates the square.

When Palladio was just getting started, this was a dilapidated Gothic palace of justice. Redoing it with a grand neo-Greek facade established the young Palladio as Vicenza's favorite architect.

The rest of Palladio's career was a one-man construction boom.

His last work was one of his greatest the Olympic Theater. Begun in 1580, it was modeled after the theaters of antiquity. It's built of wood and stucco with classical columns, statues, and plenty of perspective tricks. Statues of the theater's original patrons seem to admire the art their money made possible.

The theater was inaugurated in 1585 with a performance of Oedipus Rex. Eventually it fell into disuse. But centuries later, in the 1930s, it was restored and now is popular as one of the oldest and finest theaters in Europe.

Vicenza serves more than just graceful architecture. The romantic Zi Teresa or Auntie Teresa's restaurant dishes up local specialties. Seafood is popular here and I'm having the classic Vicenzan dish, baccala alla Vicentina marinated cod with polenta. Polenta a cornmeal staple in the Veneto, was traditionally a favorite of peasants, but now it's served in restaurants throughout Northern Italy. And it makes for a hearty lunch.

Padova, Vicenza and Verona are all on the main Venice-Milan train line. Each are connected by frequent trains. We are heading to Verona second in the Veneto only to Venice in population and artistic importance.

When arriving by train you can assume buses are standing by to whisk you to the town center.

Wherever you are, learn the word for town center. Verify which bus you want while picking up a ticket. As you hop on, confirm your stop with the driver...punch your ticket to validate it. And, a few minutes later, you're in the old center.

Verona's main attractions are its wealth of Roman ruins this bridge dates from the first century; remnants of its 13th- and 14th-century boom time; and its 21st-century quiet, pedestrian-only ambience. After Venice's mass tourism, Verona is a cool and welcome sip of pure, easy-going Italy. If you like Italy but don't need world-class sights, this town's a joy.

Ancient Romans considered Verona an ideal resting spot before crossing the Alps. This well-preserved amphitheater the third largest in the Roman world is a popular venue for events even today. Over the centuries, crowds of up to 25,000 spectators have cheered Roman gladiator battles, medieval executions, and modern plays including Verona's popular summer opera festival. Climb to the top for a fine view.

Sooner or later, those wandering Verona's streets will be flushed into a very crowded courtyard. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet made Verona a household word and this is supposedly the balcony. But, alas, a visit here has nothing to do with those two star-crossed lovers, and Juliet never lived in this house. Still, busloads of tourists gaze at the almost believable balcony, add a love note to the walls, and take part in the tradition of rubbing the breast of Juliet's statue. Why? For a better love life.

Despite the fiction, the town has been an important crossroads for 2,000 years and it is packed with genuine history. Romeo and Juliet fans will be happy to note that two real feuding families, the Montecchi and the Capellos, were the models for Shakespeare's Montagues and Capulets. And, if Romeo and Juliet had existed and were alive today, they would recognize much of their "hometown."

Verona's market square is Piazza Erbe. The 15th-century frescoes characteristic of this region earned Verona a nickname: "the painted city." People have gathered here since Roman times, when this was a forum. And for over 40 years, these friends have sliced and sold whatever's in season today, in late's artichokes.

The Venetian Lion has hovered above this square since 1405, reminding locals of their conquerors. During medieval times, this stone canopy held the scales used by merchants. A fountain has bubbled here for 2,000 years. This statue, originally Roman, lost its head and arms. When a sculptor replaced them, she became Verona's Madonna. And what's with this whale's rib? It's a souvenir brought home from the orient by spice traders it's hung here for 500 years.

Medieval Italian cities were often dominated by a single powerful family. Just as the Medici family ruled Florence, the Scaligeri family ruled Verona through much of the 14th century.

Their castle is reminiscent of Verona's golden age when the city was larger than London and ranked among Europe's great economic powers. And, if these ornate family tombs are any indication, the Scaligeris had no problem with self-esteem.

We're popping into a wine bar to learn about grappa. Veneto is the capital of grappa, and Oreste, who runs this bar, introduces his favorite drink with passion. With help from new friends, I learn that grappa is distilling the skins, seeds and stems of grapes the waste of the winemaking process into a potent after-dinner drink. Woman: this is a light grappa. Rick: Isn't that a contradiction in terms? Woman: Do you want to taste a little bit? Rick: Yes, I would.

A two-hour train ride south takes us to Ravenna.

Quiet Ravenna, a city of 140,000 with a car-free center, masks a fascinating history stretching back long before its stint as part of the Venetian Empire.

Ravenna, once an ancient Roman port and capital, later a barbarian stronghold, was taken in the year 540 into the Byzantine Empire the pinnacle of civilization in that age. As the westernmost pillar of that empire, Ravenna was a light in Europe's dark ages.

This square, Piazza del Popolo or the people's square was built around 1500 during a sixty-year period when the city was ruled by Venice. Today, in the shadow of these Venetian facades, the people of Ravenna gather. They've treated this as their communal living room for centuries.

The bustling town center is Italy's most bicycle friendly. Bike paths are in the middle of pedestrian streets, subtly indicated by white bricks.

Ca' de' Ven, or House of Wine, serves food typical of this area. Under 16th-century vaults, the place is atmospheric. We're having some great local wine and two kinds of local pasta. Waiters are usually happy to split orders. Piadina is traditional unleavened bread served with proscuitto and cheese. The rich and unique food of this region is one reason to come to Ravenna; another is to enjoy the best look at the glories of Byzantium this side of Istanbul.'s 500 AD. The city of Rome had been sacked, the land was crawling with barbarians, and the infrastructure of Rome's thousand-year empire was crumbling fast. Into this chaotic world comes the emperor of the East, Justinian, bringing order and stability, briefly reassembling the empire, and making Ravenna a beacon of civilization.

His church of San Vitale standing as a sanctuary of order in the midst of all that chaos is covered with lavish mosaics countless vibrantly-colored chips the size of your fingernail.

High above the altar, Christ is in heaven sitting on a celestial orb overseeing creation symbolized by the green earth and four rivers below his feet.

And running things here on earth is Emperor Justinian sporting both a halo and a crown to show he's leader of the church and the state. Justinian brings together both military and church leaders all united by the straight line of eyes.

Facing the Emperor is his wife Theodora and her entourage. Decked out in jewels and pearls, the former dancer who became his mistress, then empress, carries a chalice to consecrate the new church.

The walls and ceilings sparkle with colorful Bible scenes told with a sixth-century exuberance. This was a time of transition and many consider these mosaics both the last ancient Roman and the first medieval European works of art. For instance, the image of Christ above the altar is beardless - the style of the ancient Romans, and nearby, decorating this arch, is the standard medieval portrayal of a bearded Jesus. Yet each were created by artists of the same generation.

The church's octagonal design very much an Eastern style actually inspired the construction of the magnificent church of St. Sofia built a few years later in Constantinople.

Just across the courtyard, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is reputed to be the burial place of the daughter of an emperor who ruled Ravenna for 25 years. Its mosaics a hundred years older than those in San Vitale are, to many, the finest mosaics in Ravenna. The light that sneaks through the thin alabaster panels brings a glow and a twinkle to the early Christian symbolism that fills the chamber. Here again, we see the standard ancient Roman portrayal of Christ beardless and as the Good Shepherd. The eastern influence is apparent in the carpet-like decorative patterns.

The art of mosaic making is still alive and well in Ravenna. This woman is making a piece which will adorn a church in Atlanta. The process is much the same today as in ancient times. The tiny colored

glass and gold leaf pieces are broken with a hammer to fit a design derived from a pattern and set in cement. The results are almost as brilliant and beautiful today as they were in Justinian's time.

So much sightseeing greatness hides in the shadows of Europe's most popular sights. While you'll probably see Venice first, don't overlook the gems of the Veneto...

...Its architecture Palladio's classic designs and timeless buildings; its cuisine and, with a loose interpretation, that includes grappa; its history mosaics taking us back to the dawn of Europe; and its people linking their rich past with a promising future.

I hope you've enjoyed our look at Venice's lagoon and the highlights of the Veneto. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on traveling. Ciao.

Milan and Lake Como

Hi I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're in north Italy enjoying the lofty and inspiring heights of...Milano. Thanks for joining us.

Many tourists come to Italy because of its past. But Milano is today's Italy, and no Italian trip is complete without visiting this city. While overlooked by many, Milano has plenty to see and is a joy to visit.

In Milano we'll soar on the rooftop of one of Europe's grandest Gothic cathedrals, window shop in Milan's fashionable neighborhoods, visit the world's most famous opera house and admire a Leonardo masterpiece before relaxing in the 19th century charm of Lake Como.

Italy hosts millions of visitors every year. But many miss the highlights of the north. In this progam we tour Milano and side trip into the Lake District exploring my favorite Lake Como specifically the towns of Varenna and Bellagio.

They say that for every church in Rome, there's a bank in Milan. Italy's second city and the capital of region of Lombardy, Milano is a hardworking, fashion-conscious, time-is-money city of nearly a million and a half.

And the city is a fascinating melting pot of people and history. Italy recently surpassed Britain in per capita income and that didn't happen because of its cute Riviera ports and Tuscan hilltowns. The economic success of modern Italy is driven by this city of publicists and pasta power lunches. Milan is Italy's industrial, banking, publishing, and convention capital.

As if making up for its blocky architecture, its people are works of art. Milan is an international fashion center with a refined taste. Window displays are gorgeous. Yet, thankfully, Milan is no more expensive for tourists than other Italian cities.

The importance of Milano is nothing new. Three hundred years before Christ, the Romans called this place Mediolanum, or "the central place." By the 4th century AD, it was the capital of the western half of the Roman Empire. It was from here that Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which legalized Christianity in the year 313.

After struggling through the early middle ages, Milan rose to prominence under the powerful Visconti and Sforza families. By the time of the Renaissance, the city was called "the New Athens" and was enough of a cultural center for Leonardo da Vinci to call home.

And then came four centuries of foreign domination: Spain, Austria, France, and more Austria. In the 19th century, Milano became a center of revolution against Austrian rule and then helped spearhead the movement for Italian independence and unification.

In the 20th century, Mussolini left a heavy fascist touch on Milan's architecture. Il Duce, himself, made grandiose speeches from these balconies.

And Milan's immense train station thunders fascism. Every time I pass through I imagine the rush the fascists must have felt on the day in 1931 when the grand renovations of this station were unveiled. It's designed to make you feel small...too small to question Mussolini and his government's right wing agenda.

[] Mussolini's excesses also led to the bombing of Milan in WWII. But Milan rose again. The 1959 Pirelli Tower was a trendsetter. Today, Milan is dynamic and a commercial powerhouse.

The city's centerpiece is its magnificent Duomo or cathedral...the fourth-largest in Europe. [?]

Back in the 14th century when Europe was fragmented into countless little independent states, the dukes of Milan wanted to impress their German and French counterparts. To earn their respect they built this huge and richly-ornamented cathedral.

Even though the Renaissance-style with its domes and rounded arches was in vogue elsewhere in Italy, conservative Milano stuck with the Gothic style. The dukes thinking northerners would relate better to Gothic loaded it with pointed spires and arches. And everything's made of marble.

The statues on the tips of the many spires seem so relaxed like they're just hanging out, waiting for their big day. The fanciful gargoyles, functioning as drain spouts, are especially imaginative. The church is a good example of the flamboyant, or "flame like," overdone final stage of Gothic.

Step inside and you're struck by the immensity of the place. The soaring ceiling is supp orted by sequoia-sized pillars. Started in 1386 and not finished until 1810, this construction project originated the phrase Italians use to say "never-ending": "like building a cathedral."

Much of the brilliantly colored stained glass dates from about 1500. So does the fine inlaid marble floor. After 500 years of wear, you can tell that the black marble is harder then the rest. A grotesque 16th-century statue of St. Bartolomeo, a martyr skinned alive by the Romans, wears his skin like a robe. You can actually see his limp feet, and dangling face. It was sculpted by a student of Leonardo, who picked up his master's passion for human anatomy.

Cap your visit with a trip to the rooftop. Walking through its forest of pinnacles and statues you enjoy great views of the church's statuary as well as of the city. And, crowning the cathedral, a golden Virgin Mary overlooks the city. La Madonnina, as she's called, is an icon of Milano.

Milan's main square is a classic European scene and a popular local gathering point. The statue is Victor Emmanuel II, first king of Italy. He's looking at the grand Galleria named for him. The words above the triumphal arch entrance read: "To Victor Emmanuel II, from the people of Milan."

The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele is the pride of Milan. Built during the heady days of Italian unification, around 1870, it was the first building in town to have electric lighting. Its art celebrates the establishment of Italy as an independent country. Around the central dome, mosaics symbolize the four major continents. The mosaic floor is also patriotic. The she-wolf with Romulus and Remus honors Rome, the national capital.

A favorite is the torino...or little bull. While it represents the city of Torino, for's a source of good luck. They can't resist stepping on his little testicles. Locals claim it works better if you give it a spin.

Milan's immense Sforza Castle tells the story of the city in brick. It guarded the gate to the city wall and defended the ruling family from threats both domestic and foreign.

In the 1500s, the entire city was circled by a state-of-the-art walls of which this castle was a key element. It's apparent from the enormity of this fortification that Milano was a strategic prize. Today, while the walls are long gone, the massive castle survives leaving the city with an inviting and well used public space.

Locals and tourists alike enjoy strolling its expansive grounds.

A short tram ride away takes you to a different kind of public place...Milan's Monumental Cemetery.

While there are many evocative cemeteries in Europe, this one with its emotional portrayals of the departed and their heavenly escorts in the melodramatic art styles from late 19th and early 20th centuries is in a class by itself. It's a vast garden art gallery of proud busts and grim reapers, heartbroken angels and weeping widows, soldiers too young to die...acres of grief...hope...and memories.

The grand, pedestrianized Via Dante leads from the Sforza Castle toward the town center and the cathedral. It was carved out of a medieval tangle of streets to celebrate Italian unification. Because of that, the facades lining it are relatively new dating from the late 1800s. Over the vigorous complaints of merchants, the street became traffic-free in 1995. Today, they'd have it no other way.

Fashionistas love Milan's world-class shopping zone, a neighborhood called the "Quadrilateral." This elegant, high-fashion district was the original Beverly Hills of Milan. Over seeing the shopping action are the exclusive...and illusive penthouse apartments with their plush roof gardens. Since the 1920s, this has been the place for designer labels. In this scene, the people-watching is as entertaining as the window-shopping.

For edible fashion, check out one of Milano's gourmet Peck. If ever you wanted to have a picnic meal and not save it here. Everything's impeccable...from the staff to the lavish displays. The busy kitchen is like a gourmet assembly-line. Posh markets like this serve fine food to go to both Milan's busy professionals and its well-to-do.

And if you're going to spend half your budget on a might as well ride the elevator into the cellar for a bottle of wine to match. Catering to people with good taste and more money than time, places like this put a elegant twist on fast food.

500 years ago, Leonardo da Vinci contributed to the city's reputation for design and aesthetics. In fact, he's identified with Milano more than any other Italian city. This is where he spent some of his most productive years, enjoying the generous patronage of the Sforza family.

Leonardo was the epitome of a Renaissance genius that means he was well-rounded: he was a painter... sculptor...mathematician, musician, architect, scientist and name it, he did everything. And he did it well. This statue shows the many ways Leonardo contributed to the city of Milan during the years he lived here.

The relief's recall Leonardo's varied professional triumphs. Leonardo, wearing his hydro-engineer hat here, re-engineered Milan's canal system complete with locks. Until the 1920s, Milan was one of Italy's major ports, with canals connecting the city to the Po River and to the Mediterranean beyond .

And Leonardo designed the largest equestrian monument in the world for the Sforza family. Though the original was destroyed in 1499 by invading French troops, who used it for target practice, the giant horse was rebuilt in 1999 by American artist Charles Dent, from Leonardo's drawings.

One of Leonardo's greatest masterpieces decorates the monks dining hall adjacent the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie.

Visits to see the Last Supper are by reservation only and spots can be booked up well over a month in advance. Good guidebooks explain the process.

Because of the fragility of the much-loved Renaissance masterpiece, the humidity is carefully regulated. We're enjoying a private visit with our TV camera. Normally, groups of 25 visitors are allowed in each 15 minutes only after dehumidifying in this waiting chamber. Seeing the Last Supper, one of the greatest works in art history, is well worth the hassle. Leonardo portrays the last dinner Jesus had with his disciples before he was crucified.

The composition is dreamy. Leonardo captures the psychological drama as Jesus says, "One of you will betray me," and the apostles huddle in stressed-out groups of three, wonder, "Lord, is it I?" Some are scandalized. Others want more information. In this agitated atmosphere, only Judas clutching his 30 pieces of silver is not shocked.

Leonardo employs his understanding of perspective to give the fresco added punch. The building's lines of perspective converge right on Christ. The viewer doesn't understand the mathematics, but, sub-consciously, it's clear to anyone enjoying this masterpiece that Jesus is the powerful center of it all.

Because of Leonardo's experimental fresco technique, deterioration began within six years of its completion. The church was bombed in World War II, but miraculously, it seemed the wall holding The Last Supper remained standing. A recent restoration peeled 500 years of touch-ups away, leaving a faint yet vibrant masterpiece.

The room depicted in the painting seems like an architectural extension of the actual room. Leonardo even painted as if the light from the real windows hit the fresco from the side. Jesus anticipates his sacrifice his face is sad, all-knowing, and accepting.

Like any big European city, Milano's public transit is first class...but only if you use it. Trams screech and glide everywhere. The old and new share the well worn tracks. The modern underground makes this sprawling city much easier to manage. While most of the sights are within walking distance, your day goes easier especially in the heat of the summer when you use the metro.

Milan is home to possibly the world's most prestigious opera house, La Scala. While tickets are pricey and tough to get, anyone can visit the museum which comes with a peek at the plush theater often

getting set for the next performance. Since it opened in 1778, La Scala has been committed to hosting the grandest of operas in all their intended glory.

The La Scala museum collection features things that mean absolutely nothing to the MTV crowd: Toscanini's eyeglasses, well-worn batons, Caruso's bust, original scores, and more. The halls are alive with memories of the great composers and musicians that made this the ultimate opera scene. For over two centuries, Milan's glitterati has enjoyed breathtaking performances by the biggest names in opera from Maria Callas all the way back to Verdi.

Giuseppi Verdi was the greatest of romantic Italian opera composers. And in the 19th century, his name meant far more than music. He was a symbol of the movement toward Italian unification. Back when flying the Italian flag could get you in trouble, Verdi's arias served as virtual national anthems.

The nearby Risorgimento Museum tells the story of Italy's unification. It helps us imagine the excitement in Europe during the mid-1800s as the modern nations of Italy, Germany and others were being born. Back then, a few royal familiessuch as the Habsburgs, Bourbons, and Romanovs ruled Europe without regard to nationality. And none of them wanted to see the emergence of modern nation states. Even without really understanding the details, just pondering the stirring paintings here makes it clear there are Italian equivalents to our battles of Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, and Yorktown.

After four centuries of foreign rule, Milan helped spearhead Italy's road to unity. Step by step whether in bloody battle or by popular vote as was the case of Venice, Italy went from a peninsula of colonies and small states in 1850 to one united country in 1870.

Italy's heroic battles were led by patriots whose names are household words today. Mazzini the intellectual spread the notion that Italian-speaking people should be one nation. Garibaldi the guerilla war hero who's feisty little army of red shirts brought Sicily and Southern Italy into the fold, and Victor Emmanuel, the only Italian blooded king, who, upon unification was the slam dunk favorite to be the first constitutional monarch of a new Italy.

Throughout Italy, the George Washingtons and Thomas Jefferson's of the Italian independence movement are celebrated. Squares, streets, and statues are named in honor of the founding fathers of modern Italy.

But to be honest, most Milanese seem oblivious to all this history. They just enjoy being who they are. The special Italian love of life is easy to feel in Milano's Parco Sempione. And in a scene like this, the traveler can glimpse another dimension of this city: its people at play.

Another favorite place for the Milanese, is an hour's train ride away.

Lombardy's seductively beautiful lakes district where Italy meets the Alps seems heaven sent for communing with nature. In this land of so many popular lakes, the million-euro question is: Which one? While all have their charms, Lake Como is my favorite. It offers the best mix of accessibility, scenery, and offbeat-ness with a heady whiff of aristocratic-old-days romance.

Lake Como is lined with elegant, 19th-century villas, crowned by snowcapped mountains, and busy with fleets of little ferries. It's a good place to take a break from the intensity of urban turn-style sightseeing. It seems half the travelers you'll meet have tossed their itineraries into the lake and are actually relaxing. Today the hazy, lazy lake's only serious industry is tourism. The lake's isolation and flat economy have left it pretty much the way 19th-century Romantic poets first described it.

Bellagio, the self-proclaimed "Pearl of the Lake" is a classy combination of Old World elegance and new world luxury. Spendy five star hotels give the well heeled traveler all the comforts they are accustomed to. Harborfront shops entice posh travelers with jewelry and accessories. The heavy curtains between the arcades keep the visitors and their poodles from sweating. The steep-stepped lanes rising from the harbor front lead to a tangle of sun-splashed squares.

Part of the fun of your lake visit is town hopping on the ferries. For me, the ideal home base for Lago de Como is 15 minutes from Bellagio...Varenna.

This town of 800 people offers the best of all lake worlds. Easily accessible by train from Milan, on the less-developed side of the lake, Varenna has a romantic promenade, a tiny harbor, and narrow lanes. These buildings are stringently protected. You can't even change the color of your home without asking permission. There are no streets in the old town...just characteristic stepped lanes. It's the right place to savor a lakeside cappuccino or apperitivo.

Imagine this sleepy harbor two hundred years ago. It was busy with coopers expertly fitting their chestnut and oak into barrels, stoneworkers carving and shipping Varenna's prized black marble quarried just above town, and fishing boats dragged onto the cobbled beach.

Many Lake Como towns have a villa or two with their dilapidated 19th century elegance and wistful gardens open to the public and even transformed into inviting hotels. In Varenna, the sprawling lakeside Villa Cipressi [ch] rents rooms and welcomes visitors for a small fee to explore its peaceful, terraced garden.

Albergo Milano, located right in the old town, is the kind of place I like to recommend. It's graciously run by Egidio and his Swiss wife, Bettina. Fusing the best of Italy with the best of Switzerland, the place manages to be both romantic and very well-run. Most of its comfy rooms offer dreamy lake views.

And Egidio is a fine chef. The limited menu changes daily according to the season and the chef's whim.

Varenna whispers luna di miele honeymoon. And a good place to enjoy that romance is strolling along its passerella.

You'll pass by wisteria drenched villas, evocative vistas, and lakeside lovers embracing the moment. It's places like this where I really feel the romance of Europe. I hope you've enjoyed our visit to Milano and Lago di Como. I'm Rick Steves...missing my wife more than ever. Until next time...keep on traveling. Ciao.

Florence: City of Art

Hi, I'm Rick Steves with more of the best of Europe. This time we return for a closer look at the city that pulled Europe out of the Middle AgesFlorence.

Fifteenth-century Florence was the home of the Renaissance and birthplace of our modern Western world. Within a few hundred yards of where I'm standing you can enjoy much of the greatest art anywhere.

And we'll do just that: Gaze into the eyes of David, enjoy Botticelli's Birth of Venus, delve into the 3D wonders of Gilhberti's bronze panels, feel Fra Angelico's serene beauty and climb the dome that kicked off the Renaissance. And beyond the art, Florence knows how to live well. We'll cross the Arno to where Florentine artisans live and work, window-shop some of Italy's finest designer stores and side trip on a vespa to a sweeping view of this Renaissance city. But first, a little background.

After Rome fell, Europe wallowed in centuries of relative darkness. There was little learning, commerce, or travel. Then, in about 1400, right here in Florence, there was a Renaissance. This rebirth of the culture of ancient Greece and Rome started here and swept across Europe.

In architecture, the Renaissance brought a return to the balanced domes, columns and arches of the ancient world. In painting, it revived realism and emotion. Artists rediscovered the beauty of nature and the human body. Portraying beautiful people in harmonious surroundings, they expressed the optimism and confidence of this new age.

The suddenly perky Western civilization made up for lost centuries with huge gains in economics, science, and art. Florence was the center of it all and for good reason. This was where capitalism was replacing feudalism. Being the middleman of trade between west and east, the city had money and it knew what to do with it.

Wealthy merchant and banking families like the Medici who ruled Florence for generations showed their civic pride by commissioning great art. And Florence recognizing and paying creative genius like no one else had plenty of great artists to turn this pride and money into beautiful art. The Renaissance was an age of humanism, a time of confidence when business was respectable and excellence was rewarded. The Church no longer put a ceiling on learning and the great pre-Christian thinkers like Plato and Aristotle were in vogue.

Before the Renaissance, art was legitimate only if it glorified God. It sat deep in the niches of churches and came with a Bible story.

With the Renaissance, man now alert and standing on his own steps out of the shadow of the church. This David by the early Renaissance Florentine sculptor Donatello is the first freestanding male nude sculpted in Europe in a thousand years. It's art for art's sake, adorning not a church but a rich man's courtyard. While the formal subject is still Biblical David slaying the giantGoliath's severed head is at David's feet in actuality it's a classical nude, a celebration of the human body. A generation before, this would have been shocking but in the Renaissance, it's art.

Florence was long an economic powerhouse. While its church is big, it's the city hall once the palace of the Medici family that towers over the main square. Michelangelo's David originally stood here this is a copy.

The original David is the centerpiece of the nearby Accademia Gallery, which feels like a temple to humanism.

David sizes up the gianthe seems to say, "I can take him." The statue was an apt symbol, inspiring Florentines to tackle their Goliaths.

When you look at David, you're looking at Renaissance man.

Artists now made their point with realism. And art and science were no longer enemies. For instance, Michelangelo dissected human corpses to better understand anatomy. This humanism was not necessarily anti-religion. Now, rather than bow down in church all day long, people realized the best way to glorify God was to recognize their talents and use them.

Artists like Michelangelo even exaggerated realism to make their point: notice David's large and overdeveloped right hand. This is symbolic of the hand of God. It was God that powered David to slay the giant...and Florentines liked to think God's favor enabled them to rise above rival neighboring citystates.

The nave-like hall leading to David is lined with Michelangelo's unfinished prisoners struggling to break out of the marble. Michelangelo believed these figures were divinely created within the rock. As he attacked the stone with his chisel, he was simply chipping away the excess. Here we see the Renaissance love of the body as Michelangelo reveals these inspirational figures. While these sculptures are called unfinished, perhaps Michelangelo was satisfied he'd set them freeand he moved on to other challenges.

In Florence, art treasures are everywhere you turn. Here in the vast Gothic Santa Maria Novella you'll find the Holy Trinity painted by Masaccio in the early 1400s.

Using the mathematical laws of perspective, Masaccio seems to blow a hole in the wall making the first three-dimensional fresco since ancient times. The classical architecture, symmetrical composition, and the people organized into a solid, unwavering pyramid all became standard features of Renaissance art. The couple at the bottom, who paid for the art, represents the faithful parishioners of their church.

Back then, wealthy Florentines like these made an art out of living well. This elegant perfumery is a reminder that the monks of this same church nurtured an herb garden. From this they concocted the finest natural medicines and perfumes.

Today, this place air thick with the lingering aroma of centuries of spritzes still provides Florentines and visitors alike with its fine products. In the dark days of medieval plagues and epidemics, people looked to monasteries for miracle cures and potions.

Woman: This is a smelling salt. It has a very strong scent. There is a legend called the Vinegar of the Seven Thieves. During the times of the plague, there were seven thieves. They spread this on their bodies and didn't catch the plague. After stealing from the dead and dying they revealed the recipe to the friars of the Santa Maria Novella. Each of the thieves only knew one of the ingredients. They shared this knowledge with the friars after they healed one of the thieves. In more modern times it was used as a remedy for fainting. The ladies needed this as they fainted often because of their dresses.

The Renaissance lasted roughly two centuries. The High Renaissance, or 1500s, is well-known for the work of Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael. But the first half of the Renaissance, the 1400s, is often overlooked.

While the actual buildings of the Florence cathedral are medieval, its remarkable dome and much of the art decorating its facade, baptistery and bell tower define this first century of the Renaissance. The Duomo that's Italian for cathedral is huge one of the largest in the world. But it's stark and dark inside. The terrible flood of 1966 literally flushed the place out. The church's claim to fame is its dome the first of the Renaissance and the first great dome built in Europe in over a thousand years. The church was built in Gothic times but rather than being given another spire, it was left with a gaping hole waiting for a dome to cap it. In 1420 Filippo Brunelleschi won the job and built the ingenious dome that began the architectural Renaissance.

And we're climbing it nearly 500 steps.

Knowing the roof would collapse under too much weight, Brunelleschi devised a dome-within-a-dome, leaving this hollow space in between to make it lighter.

The immense dome taller than a football field on end rose in rings. First, they'd create part of the big white ribs, then fill in the space with interlocking bricks. When one ring was complete and selfsupporting, they'd move the scaffolding up and build another.

Brunelleschi's dome which inspired domes to follow from the Vatican to the American Capitol showed how art and science could combine to make beauty. And today, it rewards those who climb to the top with a grand Florence view.

While the architecture of the dome and the statues of the bell tower are impressive, the Baptistery across from the cathedral, steeped in history and art, is centuries older. The Baptistery is separate because in medieval times you couldn't go into a church until you were baptized. Its interior glitters with Byzantine-style mosaics created long before the Renaissance.

Jesus overlooking creation on Judgment Day gives the ultimate thumbs up and thumbs down. On his right Angel Gabriel blows his trumpet, bringing good news to the saved and on the thumbs down sidewell, you don't want to go there.

Some say the Renaissance began in 1401 with the excitement over a city-wide competition to build new doors for the Baptistery. Lorenzo Ghiberti won this commission and others to follow spending decades beautifying this building. These bronze panels - Ghiberti's so-called "Gates of Paradise," were revolutionary in their realism.

While the doors outside are copies, we're touring the Duomo museum for a look at the original panels and the other great art of the cathedral.

With Ghiberti, the art world acquired a whole new dimension depth. He pulled out all the stops to give his panels maximum three-dimensionality. The architecture portrayed is mathematically correct. The tiles have lines which converge to a vanishing point. This table is foreshortened to extenuate its depth. A bench is added to establish a foreground distinct from the middle and background. The effect? As viewers we become part of the scene, standing in the presence of the holy prophets. Along with realism, art was infused with emotion. The work of Donatello is a groundbreaking example.

Donatello invented the Renaissance style Michelangelo would later perfect. He was an innovative, eccentric, work-a-holic master who lit up his statues with an inner spirituality or soul.

His Mary Magdalene carved out of wood is shockingly realistic. The prostitute rescued from the streets by Jesus folds her hands in prayer. Her once-beautiful body has been scarred by the fires of her fasting and remorse. While her physical body is neglected and her eyes are hollow, her spirit stands strong.

After nearly 150 years of construction, the cathedral was almost done, and they began preparing the interior for its inauguration.

This balcony for the choir sums up the exuberance of the age. Dancing and swirling in a real space, oblivious to the columns, Donatello's happy angels enjoy the freedom and motion of this new age. The museum's most famous piece sculpted much later is this pieta by Michelangelo. The broken body of the crucified Christ is tended by three mourners his mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Nicodemus. Michelangelo sculpted Jesus taller than life notice the zigzag of his body. This accentuates its weight, making the theological point of the statue clear Jesus is dead.

Nicodemus is thought to be a self-portrait of the 80-year-old Michelangelo. After spending a lifetime bringing statues to life, Michelangelo looks down sadly and tenderly at what could be one of his final creations.

I'm meeting my Florentine friend Manfredo at a little sandwich shop called I Fratellini the little brothers. Locals have been serving rustic sandwiches and Chianti from this colorful hole-in-the-wall for ages.

Manfredo: Who comes here? Now everybody comes for a quick lunch, workers, top managers, students, everybody.

Let's go, we can leave the glasses here. If you never leave its crowded center, you don't really see Florence. Cross the Arno River and explore the Oltrarno. Manfredo: If you want to leave the tourists, you must cross the Arno, you have to go to the other side. That's where the Florentines really live.

There's more to this town than tourism. The majority of its people live and work mostly in small shops where tourists rarely venture. Pop into shops to see artisans at work. You're welcome to drop in to little shops but remember, it's polite to greet the merchant. "Can I take a look?" is "Posso guardare?"

Many people of the Oltrarno share buildings that were once Palazzos. Today residents like Manfredo and his friends can still enjoy the good life with peaceful siestas and great views from private rooftop gardens.

Manfredo: It's so great with the campari and the view of the Boboli Gardens. It used to be the private gardens of the Medici family but now it's open to everyone. It's a great garden! I just avoided a two-hour wait at the Uffizi Gallery tomorrow by calling today for an entry appointment. Something I stress in all my guidebooks is tricks for avoiding these long lines. Italy is really crowded. But Florence has a great system for this and many other cities are following suit.

Driving and parking in Florence is no fun especially for visitors. I'm getting around local style with Manfredo's help and we're heading for Piazzale Michelangelo.

Perched on a hill overlooking the town, this is understandably the place to wind down your day. Enjoying a wonderful city view, a setting sun with a special travel partner becomes a prized memory. We're staying at Hotel Loggiato dei Serviti. This spiffed up 16th-century monastery offers a good mix of character and comfort. From the understated elegance of its lounges and breakfast room, stone stairways lead to comfortable bedrooms. Once the cells of monks, the rooms with air-conditioning, antique furniture, and mini-bars, wouldn't be recognized by their original inhabitants.

A block away is another monastery with simpler cells than our hotelbut better art.

The Monastery of San Marco, with its peaceful cloister, welcomes the public to enjoy the greatest collection anywhere of frescoes and paintings by Fra Angelico.

Fra Angelico equal parts monk and painter fused medieval spirituality with early Renaissance techniques.

In this painting, he creates a realistic scene set in the first great Renaissance landscape. Christ is mourned by both haloed saints and contemporary Florentines. The scene is holy, but rather than in heaven, it's set on a lawn in Tuscanyamong real trees and people.

The halls are lined with monk's cells, each with a meditation-enhancing fresco. Studying these religious scenes, we can see how Fra Angelico thought of painting as a form of prayer and why it's said he couldn't paint a crucifix without shedding tears.

This is the cell of Savonarola, the charismatic monk who, by giving fiery sermons denouncing the decadence of Renaissance Florence, threw out the Medici and, for a time, turned the city into a theocracy.

Ruling the city, he sponsored "bonfires of the vanities" in which his followers would collect and burn jewelry, fleshy paintings, anything considered too modern, hedonistic and humanist. Even the Florentine painter Botticelli fell under Savonarola's spell tossing some of his "decadent" paintings onto the fires.

Later, Botticelli painted this metaphor of the times showing Renaissance heroes being dragged before a court of medieval morality. The classical statues look out of their niches in dismay. And Venus looks up at God as if to say, "How can you do this to us?"

Finally, when Florence decided it preferred the Renaissance to a Church-sponsored return to the Dark Ages, Savonarola himself was burned.

Modern Florence could provide plenty of decadence for a Savonarola rant, but if you want to enjoy a splash of materialism or just appreciate the fine symmetry of Italian window displays, this is the place to be.

For shoppers, Florence means high quality and top fashions. Wandering through medieval streets while being tempted by a seductive array of fine jewelry, leatherwear, and Italian design can make for a delightful afternoon.

The Ponte Vecchio, or old bridge, has been busy with shoppers since before the Renaissance. Jewelry is a Florentine specialty. The bridge is lined with gold and silver shops a tradition that goes back centuries.

The city's appetite for things of beauty spills over into food. Even a sandwich shop in Florence can be elegant. Cantinetta dei Verrazzano is a long-established bakery/caf/wine bar serving delicious sandwich plates in an stylish old-time setting. As office workers pop in for a quick bite, it's tradition to share tables at lunchtime.

The waiter describes the plate. No trip to this city of art is complete without a visit to its greatest museum.

When the Medici family ruled Florence from this palace, their offices or Uffizi were next door connected by a skyway. Now, these offices hold the finest collection of Italian paintings anywhere the Uffizi Gallery.

Each day, here and throughout Europe, frustrated tourists waste precious hours in museum lines. Meanwhile, travelers who made a reservation as we did yesterday show up at their appointed time and are allowed right in.

The Uffizi's collection displayed on one comfortable floor, takes you on a sweep through art history from the 12th through the 17th century.

These altarpieces are Gothic being pre-Renaissance they simply tell their story through symbolism rather than realism. The gold leaf sky isn't realistic, but it implies a rich and holy setting. The angels are stacked like a totem pole. On this altarpiece these panels tell the story of the crucifixion, but they don't create any sense of depth. Yet artists were trying to show Jesus' head leaning out it actually does.

Giotto, often considered the first modern painter, is still Gothic. But notice the progress. A more realistic setting places Mary and baby Jesus on a throne occupying a believable space. The kneeling angels in front and peek-a-boo saints behind create an illusion of depth.

If the Renaissance was a foundation of the modern world, a foundation of the Renaissance was Classical art. Sculptors, painters, and poets alike turned to ancient work for inspiration.

This 2,000-year-old classical goddess a Roman copy of the much older Greek original stood in the Medici family garden.

It was considered the epitome of beauty. Louis 14th made a copy. Napoleon stole it. In the 19th century young aristocrats on the grand tour stood right here and swooned.

In the Renaissance as in the ancient world people saw the glory of God in the beauty, order, and harmony of the human body God's greatest creation.

Classical statues like this clearly inspired Sandro Botticelli. For me, his Birth of Venus is the Uffizi's purest expression of Renaissance beauty. The goddess of love, born from the foam of a wave, is just waking up.

Botticelli combines the beauty of nature and the human body the hands, wings, and robe mingle with the wind. With Venus' flyaway hair, the airy spaciousness of the distant horizon, and the flowers caught at the peak of their beauty, tumbling in slow motion the world itself seems fresh and newborn.

Botticelli's Primavera, or Springtime, shows the Renaissance finally in full bloom. The warm winds blow in, causing Flora to sprout flowers from her lips. While the figure of Spring spreads petals from her dress, the Three Graces dance, a blindfolded cupid happily sprays his little arrows, and in the center stands Venus, the classical goddess of love.

Visiting Florence leaves lovers of art and good living with rich memories. And while much of the great art of the Renaissance remains here, the influence of that cultural explosion the Florentine Renaissance reverberates throughout the world, and for that, we can be thankful. I hope you've enjoyed our look at the artistic splendor of Florence. Let's explore more of Europe together again soon. Until then, I'm Rick Steves. Keep on travelin'. Ciao.

Caesar's Rome
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, taking a break from guiding tours to be your travel partner. This time we return to Rome. This is the ancient Appian Way Europe's first super highway. The gates of Imperial Rome are a two-mile chariot ride that way.

Our focus for this return visit: Classical Rome, once the capital of the Western world. We'll marvel at the biggies the Colosseum... the Pantheon... its sumptuous art. Then we'll go offbeat and bicycle to see the Appian Way, ancient Christian catacombs and marvels of Roman engineering.

Rome can feel overwhelming. We'll take it slowly, starting where the city did in the Forum and try to resurrect all this ancient rubble.

In a nutshell, classical Rome lasted about a thousand years: roughly 500 BC to 500 AD. It grew for 500 years, peaked for 200 years and fell for 300 years. The first half was a republic run by elected senators, the last half an empire run by unelected emperors.

In its glory days, the word Rome meant not the city but what Romans considered the entire civilized world.

Everyone was either Roman or barbarian. People who didn't speak Latin or Greek sounded to the Romans almost like animals: like they were saying bar-bar-bar... barbarians.

The legendary founders of Rome were two brothers Romulus and Remus abandoned in the wilderness and suckled by a she wolf. Eventually, they started their city.

In actuality, the first Romans mixed and mingled here, in what became the Forum. In 509 BC they tossed out their king, established a relatively democratic Roman Republic, and began what was perhaps history's greatest success story.

The Temples of Hercules, Victor, and Portunus built about three centuries before Christ are from the time of the Republic.

From the start, Rome had a knack for effective government. This simple-looking building was once veneered with marble. It's the Curia. The senate met here and set the legal standards that still guide western civilization.

The reign of Julius Caesar marked the turning point between the Republic and the Empire. The Republic designed to rule a small city state found itself trying to rule most of Europe. Something new and stronger was needed. Caesar established a no-nonsense, more disciplined government, became dictator for life, and for good measure, had a month named in his honor... July.

In an attempt to save the republic and their political power, a faction of Roman senators assassinated Caesar. His body was burned on this spot in 44 BC.

The citizens gathered here on Rome's main square to hear Mark Antony say; in Shakespeare's words, "Friends, Romans, countrymen... lend me your ears, I have come to bury Caesar, not to praise him." But the Republic was finished and Rome became the grand capital of a grand empire.

The Via Sacra or Sacred Way was the main street of ancient Rome. It stretched from the Arch of Septimius Severus to the Arch of Titus.

Rome's triumphal arches show how war and expansion were the business of state. Rome's thriving economy was fueled by plunder and slaves won in distant wars.

The Arch of Titus celebrated the Roman victory over the rebellious Jews of Judea modern-day Israel in 70 AD. The Jewish menorah and the arc of the covenant are being toted away by the victorious Romans. The propaganda message was clear: Rome was the only superpower of its day.

A gelato break makes sorting through Rome's history more fun. And you're never far from a good gelateria. According to their loyal customers Giolitti serves the best in town.

While ice cream is cream-based and richer, gelato is milk-based allowing the flavor to pop right through.

Okay, let's take a few more licks at the story of Rome. A visit to Rome's Capitoline Museum puts you curbside for a victory parade down the Via Sacra.

The conquering generals roll down the street with carts of booty... triumphant horns blare while citizens ooh and ahh at the plunder of conquered lands. The captive king is led by in handcuffs. And then Marcus Aurelius, the Eisenhower of the day, rolls through on his four-horse chariot... rose petals strewn in his path.

The Dying Gaul is a Roman copy of a Greek original made in the 3rd century BC. It was used as propaganda part of a monument celebrating a victory over the barbarians.

You can ponder scenes of Romans slaughtering barbarians and look into the eyes of now-forgotten emperors.

And the museum also shows a more peaceful and intimate side of Roman life. Here's a boy quietly pulling a thorn from his foot.

At first glance these look like paintings, but a closer look shows they're micro-mosaics, made of thousands of tiny fragments. This one hung in Emperor Hadrian's Villa.

The Capitoline Venus, another Roman copy of a Greek original, is one of the truest representations of the concept of feminine beauty from ancient times.

And this statue, called the Drunken Faun, is a playful reminder that a thread of ancient Rome that survives today is a fondness for good food and fine wine.

Travelers can enjoy better restaurants without going broke by indulging in the appetizers and first courses. I find the antipasti and pasta dishes more varied and interesting than the more expensive secondi or entree courses. We're starting with a table full of antipasti... fried zucchini flowers, fresh mozzarella, marinated eggplant and more. In Rome, smart diners eat with the seasons.

And now the pasta...even in early May it's plenty warm to dine outside. Dinner within splashing distance of a tub from the ancient Baths of Caracalla caps a perfectly Roman day.

Rome's subway system, with just two lines, is easy to use. And it's helpful for sightseeing. From our hotel, it's a straight shot to the Colosseum. Colosseo that's our stop.

The Colosseum was and still is colossal. It's THE great example of ancient Roman engineering. It was begun in 80 AD during the reign of Emperor Vespasian when the Empire was at its peak.

Using Roman-pioneered concrete, brick, and their trademark round arches, Romans constructed much larger buildings than the Greeks.

But, it seems, they still respected the fine points of Greek culture. They decorated their no-nonsense mega-structure with all three Greek orders of columns Doric... Ionic... and Corinthian.

It's built as two theaters built together that's an amphitheater so twice as many people could enjoy the entertainment.

Romans filled and emptied the Colosseum's 50,000 seats as quickly and efficiently as we do our super-stadiums. Canvas awnings were hoisted over the stadium to give fans shade.

These passageways underneath the arena were covered by a wooden floor. Between acts animals and gladiators were shuffled around out of sight.

Ancient Romans, whose taste for violence exceeded even modern America's, came to the Colosseum to unwind. Gladiators, criminals, and wild animals fought to the death providing the public with a festival of gore. To celebrate the Colosseum's grand opening, Romans were treated to the slaughter of 5,000 animals.

For a reenactment, let's get touristy. Doomed gladiators would look up at the emperor and say: "Ave Caesar! Before we die... we salute you."

Today, descendants of the survivors, pose with tourists... for a price.

Trajan's Column trumpets the glories of Emperor Trajan who ruled Rome in its heyday. Like a 200 yard long scroll, it winds all the way to the top. The purpose: propaganda... telling of a military victory by Trajan. He extended the boundaries of the empire to its greatest size ever.... ...from the Nile to the north of Britain. Controlling its entire coastline, Romans called the Mediterranean simply "mare nostrum... Our Sea."

Great emperors like Trajan and Marcus Aurelius ruled during the Pax Romana. This "Roman Peace" the first two centuries after Christ was a time of stability, prosperity and a steady succession of capable rulers.

It was tradition that an emperor's son no matter how inept would succeed him. Luckily for Rome, for a long period no emperors had sons. They would, instead, adopt the man most fit to rule. When the emperor died, his adopted son would take over. In the 2nd century, Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius were all adopted sons... and great emperors.

I feel the grandeur of ancient Rome here, where the mammoth Basilica of Constantine once stood. Basilicas were communal meeting halls places to conduct business or just schmooz.

This huge barrel vault was just a side niche. Now look at the nub of that broken arch and extend the roof all the way across this vacant lot. Now fill in the basilica with rich marble, a gilded ceiling and toga-clad Romans.

Hard to imagine? A visit to the National Museum at the Palazzo Massimo helps. While ancient Rome's architecture was grand, its citizens were just people... like you and me... without electricity. These frescoes a rare example of Roman painting show daily life. Romans liked to think of themselves as somehow living parallel with the gods... domestic scenes come with a twist of mythology.

This painted garden wallpapering a Roman villa created an atmosphere of majestic relaxation. Looking at artifacts of Rome's elite, from exquisite jars to sumptuous jewelry, we can only marvel at lifestyles of the rich and Roman.

Let Rome's art tell the empire's story: Caesar Augustus was the nephew of Julius Caesar and first great emperor of the Pax Romana. Looking into the eyes of the man who called himself "the first among equals", you get the feeling that the ship of state was in good hands.

With this statue, it's clear... Rome was falling. This boy is about to become head of state. It was a chaotic time. Eighteen emperors were assassinated in a 50-year period. Surrounded by nervous senators, this kid's not the picture of confidence.

This Discus Thrower is yet another Roman copy of a famous Greek original. While Romans were better engineers than artists, one area of art in which Rome excelled was copying.

After seeing its museums it's easier to envision Rome at its peak - once a metropolis of marble embellished with countless statues.

The hill overlooking the forum the Palatine, was filled with luxurious palaces of emperors. In fact, we get our word "palace" from Palatine.

And it was on the protective high ground of this hill that the humble wooden huts of the very first Romans were built.

While little survives on the Palatine the Pantheon is ancient Rome's greatest surviving structure. The one-piece granite columns were shipped from Egypt. It takes four tourists to hug one.

Step inside for the greatest look anywhere at the splendor of ancient Rome. Its dimensions are classic based on a perfect circle as wide as it is tall. The oculus is the only source of light.

The Pantheon survived so well because it's been in continuous use for over 2,000 years. It went directly from being a pagan temple to being a Christian church.

Barbarians spared it and it was never used as a quarry. The brilliance of the Pantheon's construction has astounded architects through the ages. It's said that that hole was cut by the great Renaissance architect Brunelleschi to analyze the materials used. The dome gets thinner and lighter with height the highest part is made of an airy volcanic stone called tufa.

Pan... theon means "all gods." It was a spiritual menagerie where the many gods were worshipped. There was a kind of religious freedom back then. The conquered were welcome to keep their own gods... as long as they worshipped Caesar as well. This was generally no problem. But the Christians who had a single... and very jealous... God were an exception. Because they refused to worship the emperor, early Christians were persecuted.

Many found themselves locked up in the Mamertine Prison. For pilgrims, this is a sacred spot, where Saints Peter and Paul are said to have done time.

While cistern-shaped, it stored Rome's enemies rather than its water. This floor was added in modern times. Prisoners were lowered in through that hole.

And they landed here. Imagine, a slow death down here with fat rats and rotting corpses. According to legend, St. Peter was chained to this column and a spring miraculously bubbled up allowing him to baptize his cellmates. The upside down cross commemorates Peter's execution. Believing he wasn't worthy to die as Christ did, Peter requested to be crucified upside down.

The names of famous prisoners are on the walls. Also listed: how they were executed: Decapitato decapitated, Strangolati strangled, Morto per Fame starved to death.

In ancient Rome, no burials were allowed within the city walls. Christian's buried their dead outside of Rome in the Catacombs.

I'm teaming up with Tom Rankin, an American architect living and teaching in Rome. We've rented bikes and are bound for one of these.

Dozens of ancient catacombs circle Rome a couple of miles beyond its walls. Many are open to the public. We're visiting perhaps the largest and most historic - the catacombs of San Callisto. Land was expensive. So poor Christians dug their tombs many stories deep on land shared by a few wealthy Christians.

Many of the first Christians buried here were later recognized as martyrs and saints. Others carved out niches nearby to bury their loved ones close to these early Christian heroes. They dug over 300 miles

of tomb-lined tunnels with networks of galleries five layers deep. There were half a million tombs in this catacomb alone.

Tom: Of all the rooms in these catacombs, these are probably the most historic. In the 3rd century, nine popes were buried here. And pilgrims over the centuries have come here to worship at their tombs. Rick: It feels like a chapel. Tom: In fact in the fourth century it was converted into a chapel. One of the martyrs was beheaded right here in this altar, a pope, as he was worshiping. Praying here was considered a slap in the face of the Emperor. Rick: Was the sky light actually from ancient times? Tom: Yes, it gave a little light and ventilation. Rick: So it would have felt a lot like it feels right now. Tom: Very much so, you would have had these oil burning lamps imbedded in the walls. Rick: You can read the wall. Tom: Each of the niches was covered with a plaque, to give you information on who was buried here. This refers to someone named Fabian Bishop of Rome, and Martos, and that is very important because this means that this person was a martyr.

The bones are long gone, but symbolic carvings decorate the walls: the fish stood for Jesus, the anchor was a camouflaged cross, and the phoenix with a halo symbolized the resurrection.

By the Middle Ages, these catacombs were abandoned and forgotten. Centuries later they were rediscovered. Romantic tourists on the grand tour visited by candlelight and legends grew about Christians hiding out here to escape persecution. But the catacombs were not hideouts simply underground cemeteries.

Rome's ancient wall stretches eleven miles. It protected the city until Italy was united in 1870. From gates like this, grand roads fanned out to connect the city with its empire.

The Appian Way Rome's gateway to the East was the largest and fastest road yet...the wonder of its day. Called the Queen of Roads and very straight as Roman engineers were fond of designing it stretched 400 miles to Naples and on to Brindisi, from where Roman ships sailed to Greece and Egypt.

These are the original stones. Tombs of ancient big shots lined the Appian Way like billboards. With its million people, ancient Rome needed lots of water. Grand aqueducts carried a steady stream into town. They seem to gallop toward the city, as they did 2,000 years ago.

Rick: So these Aqueducts provided all of Rome's water? Tom: Yes, aqueducts were the Achilles heel of Rome. All you had to do to bring down the city was to knock out one of these arches. In fact, in the 6th century, the Barbarians did just that. It shriveled up. No water. Rick: Wow. Great way to conquer a big city. These days, this aqueduct park is a favorite with locals for walking the dog... or burning off some of that pasta.

Springs in the surrounding hills fed the aqueducts. Even after 20 years of Roman visits I'm enjoying new discoveries. Tom showed me a special spring the Emperors favorite. It's called Aqua Santa... the Holy Water.

Today, the Aqua Santa bottling company is fed by the same spring. Although you can buy mineral water anywhere in town, locals come here to fill their bottles. While their children enjoy a break from the big city, Romans fill their carts with the same water the Caesars drank.

With its imposing walls and all the stories of persecutions and hungry lions, it's easy to forget that the last century of the Roman Empire was Christian.

In 312 the general Constantine, following a vision that he would triumph under the sign of the cross, beat his rival, emperor Maxentius. Constantine took power and legalized Christianity. This obscure outlawed Jewish sect ultimately became the religion of the empire.

In the year 300 you could be killed for being a Christian and in 400 you could be killed for not being one. Church enrollment boomed and Emperor Constantine built the first great church right here San Giovanni in Laterano... St. John's.

It opened as a kind of "first Vatican." St. John's was the original home of the bishop of Rome, or Pope. It's filled with symbols of Christianity's triumph over pagan Rome: Tradition says these gilded bronze columns once stood in pagan Rome's holiest temple. And high atop the canopy over the altar, a box supposedly contains the skulls of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

And what better doors for this first grand church than those which once hung in ancient Rome's Senate house.

The adjacent holy stairs are a major stop on Rome's pilgrimage trail. Many credit Constantine's mother, St. Helena, for her son's conversion. She brought home wagonloads of relics including these

stairs believed to be from the palace of Pontius Pilate. For 1,700 years, pilgrims believing Jesus climbed these on the day he was condemned have scaled the Scala Santa on their knees.

The influence of ancient Rome is everywhere. Its noble ruins tell a tale of power, politics, and imperial egos; of pagan gods now forgotten; of public art on a grand scale and of brilliant and enduring engineering feats. It's a story of colossal achievement and monumental failure.

By the year 500 the over-expanded, corrupt and exhausted Roman Empire had fallen. Over time, Trajan's column was capped with a Christian saint, the Pantheon became a church, Emperor Hadrian's mausoleum became the Pope's fortress, and the tomb of a man the Romans executed was crowned by the grandest building in the city St. Peter's Basilica.

Today visitors to Rome find fascinating layers of history and culture: early Christian, baroque, and modern. But it all sits upon a solid foundation of the ancient city which was, for many centuries, the capital of Western Civilization. I'm Rick Steves. Keep on travelin'. Ciao.

Rome: Baroque, After Dark

Hi, I'm Rick Steves, delighted to be your travel partner as we return to eternally entertaining Rome. Italy is a festival of good living and Rome... it's the capital.

There's history everywhere here in the city of the Caesar's. The Colosseum reminds us of chariots and gladiators. Monuments like Trajan's column, wrapped with a scroll carved in stone, boosted imperial egos. Statues show how Emperors were worshipped as gods on earth. And the Pantheon, with my favorite skylight anywhere, inspired future ages to great domes of their own.

But let's save the Pantheon and these ancient wonders for a future episode. Right now, we're more interested in a different Rome.

We'll ramble through the back streets to discover artistic and cultural surprises, admire breathtaking Bernini statues, ponder sunbeams inside St. Peters at the Vatican, meet some Roman friends for an early evening stroll. And we'll go local after dark mixing some great gelato with Rome's Baroque and bubbly nightspots.

The old core of Rome is best explored on foot ideally in the spring or fall. The most grueling thing about European travel is the heat and crowds of summer especially in Italy. We're here in springtime much more comfortable.

The people-packed Spanish Steps were named for a nearby Spanish embassy. And for over 200 years travelers have gathered here to enjoy a little dolce vita with their sightseeing.

Another of Rome's great people zones is the Campo de' Fiori. Literally, the field of flowers, this has long been a fragrant and colorful market. The market action is best in the morning. Artichokes are a favorite seasonal vegetable with Roman cooks.

Back in medieval times Campo de Fiori was also a place of executions. Giordano Bruno was a heretic, burned at the stake during the Counter-Reformation. His crime: believing the world was round and not the center of the universe. This neighborhood which honors heretics is still known for its free spirit.

Rome is a delight on foot. A morning wandering is filled with surprises. Playful fountains decorate squares this fountain dates from the 16th century its turtles were added much later.

The Rotunda of Diocletian from about 300 AD is easy to overlook. Part of Diocletian's Baths, it offers a great peek at classical Greek and Roman sculpture. Ancient art could be idealistic: here we see Venus emerging from the waves... tying up her hair. And realistic: like this battered boxer with his roughed up face and tired hands... complete with brass knuckles.

Poke around. Explore. Gardens drip from sleepy balconies and Vespas share lanes with pedestrians. Small churches, like Santa Maria della Vittoria, hide unexpected riches. Rome is the birthplace of the Baroque style and Bernini is considered its father. He designed this chapel like a theater with members of the family who paid for the art looking on from their box seats.

Center stage is "The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa." Bernini takes the Renaissance mastery of realism and breathes emotion into it. Here he captures the feeling Theresa described when the angel pierced her heart with a heavenly arrow: She said, "The pain was so sharp that I cried aloud. But at the same time I experienced such delight that I wished it would last forever."

Here, in San Luigi dei Francesi a church built 400 years ago for the French in Rome, three paintings by Caravaggio fill a side chapel. Caravaggio was another influential Baroque master.

He intentionally shocked his viewers with creative use of light, dramatic contrasts and by placing sacred Bible stories in contemporary Roman street life settings. Here in "the Calling of St. Matthew", Christ points his finger at Matthew.

This church was built in the 1600s to honor St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. It's bursting with Baroque decor. Artists from this period loved painting illusions. And this church comes with an architectural surprise.

From here its dome looks real. But walk under it and you'll see it's actually a flat, ingeniously painted ceiling... a handy trick when the neighboring monastery doesn't want its light blocked... or your church building project runs out of money.

More and more of old Rome is traffic-free and pedestrian friendly. Still you may want to catch a bus. Tobacco shops sell bus tickets.

Stamp a time onto your ticket as you board. Each ticket is good for 75 minutes great for hopping on and off.

There's no way a normal city bus can navigate these characteristic quarters. But mini electrico buses offer a good option for joy riding. Bus 116 is particularly handy. And friendly locals can be impromptu tour guides.

To best enjoy Rome, I want a centrally located refuge like Hotel Oceania. It's peaceful, airconditioned, and easy on the budget.

Throughout Europe, small, family-run hotels offer great value with a smile. At Hotel Oceania, Armando Loretti serves up a warm welcome and plenty of sightseeing advice.

This is the kind of place I like to recommend in my guidebooks. Forget the old shower down the hall. These days in Europe, most hotels have remodeled, shoehorning in small bathrooms.

In many cases the room showers with you there's the drain... and don't worry, the toilet paper comes with a little rain cap.

Armando's son, Stefano, is heading out to lunch and I'm tagging along. I find many of my favorite restaurants this way. Rick: What should we do tonight? Stefano: We can meet at the Piazza del Popolo, and passegiata. Rick: What can we do after that? Stefano: We can go to dinner, I can show you a good place. Pasticceria Dagnino is popular for its top quality Sicilian specialties. As is typical in a tavola calda or hot table, the food is ready to go designed for local office workers on a quick lunch break. Rick: What shall we eat? Stefano: Well that is... Rick: I'll take it all. What else would be good, some mixed vegetables Oversee the construction of your meal at the bar. Rick: Arancino, per favore. Their arancino a rice ball with a peas and meat filling, is a favorite. Pay at the cashier and grab a table. Rick: Stick this in a Ziploc baggie, and you're ready for the road. Stefano: Piazzo de Popolo, five o'clock. Rick: Okay, Ciao. We're heading for the Vatican, but first, a stroll through Rome's Central Park, the Borghese Gardens. This huge park has long offered locals and travelers alike a breezy escape from the big city noise and intensity. The park's centerpiece is a cardinal's lavish mansion now, the Borghese Gallery.

As is the case for many of Europe's top sights, admission requires a reservation. Getting one is easy a phone call or visit to the website and you get an entry time. Guidebooks have all the details.

The wealthy Borghese family filled their 17th century villa with art. The palace abounds with great statues like this intriguing look at Napoleons sister by Canova and famous paintings by the masters. Here's Raphael's Disposition. Christ being taken from the cross.

This was an age when the rich and powerful employed great artists to spiff up their homes. Here the interior decorator was none other than Bernini. This is his self-portrait.

Bernini's David body wound like a spring and lips pursed as he prepares to slay the giant shows the determination of the age. Bernini was 25 when he sculpted this in fact the face of David is his. Another great Baroque artist, Carravaggio, tackled the same topic. Carravaggio grabbing another opportunity to shock his viewers also sneaks in a self-portrait... as the head of Goliath.

Baroque goes for maximum emotion. And Bernini's Rape of Perserpine packs a punch. Perserpine's entire body seems to scream for help as Pluto drags his catch into the underworld. His three-headed dog barks triumphantly.

Bernini's Apollo Chasing Daphne is a highlight. Apollo happily wounded by Cupid's arrow chases Daphne who is saved by turning into a tree. In typical Baroque style, Bernini captures the instant when, just as Apollo's about to catch Daphne, her fingers turn to leaves; her toes sprout roots... and Apollo's is in for one rude surprise.

The statue as much air as stone makes a supernatural event seem real. This classical scene while plenty fleshy comes with a church-pleasing moral: chasing earthly pleasures leads only to frustration. The place to contemplate that thought is at the Vatican.

Here's a case where crossing a street is crossing a border. We've just left Italy. The Vatican may be the world's smallest independent country with only a thousand inhabitants, but it's the spiritual capital of hundreds of millions of Roman Catholics.

The Vatican is built upon the memory and grave of the first pope, St. Peter. It's centerpiece St. Peter's Basilica.

Piazza San Pietro was the site of a Roman race track... chariots made their hairpin turns around that obelisk. For added entertainment Christians were executed here. In about 65 AD, the apostle Peter

was crucified within sight of that obelisk. Peter's friends buried him in a nearby grave on the Vatican Hill and for 250 years Christians worshipped quietly on the site.

When Constantine legalized Christianity the first St. Peters was built. 1200 years later, the original St. Peters was replaced by this church.

It's the richest and most impressive church on earth. It's big. Six acres... over 600 feet long, bathed in sunbeams. It can accommodate thousands of worshippers. The ornamental cherubs dwarf a large man. Marks on the floor show where the world's next biggest churches would fit if put inside: Saint Paul's in London... 158 meters. As a tour guide, I've lost entire groups in here.

Visitors marvel at grand paintings decorating the many chapels. But they're not paintings at all. Because oil on canvas would soon be covered by candle soot, you won't find paintings in St. Peter's. Just the magnificent work of the Vatican school of mosaics with thousands of different colors in their arsenal of chips.

This scene showing Peter looking after early Christians, while centuries old, looks almost new. Michelangelo's Pieta is a highlight. Protected by bulletproof glass, it's only viewable from a distance. Here the 25-year-old Michelangelo makes the theological message very clear: Jesus was alive but now he's dead. The contrast provided by Mary's rough robe makes his body even carved in marble feel soft and believable.

The altarpiece, yet another Bernini masterwork, encrusts the legendary throne of St. Peter with a starburst of Baroque praise.

Directly above the tomb of St. Peter is the high altar, Bernini's bronze canopy, and Michelangelo's dome taller than a football field on end.

The banner declares in Latin Tu es Petrus.."you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church." This is the scriptural basis for primacy of Rome in the Catholic Church.

An elevator takes you to the base of the dome for a close-up look at those huge letters and a heavenly perspective into the church. Pilgrims are sure to attend a Mass here in the greatest church in Christendom performed daily at 5 p.m.

From the rooftop you can size up the dome you're about to climb. For a close look at Michelangelo's dome-within-a-dome design, climb 300 steps to the cupola. It's often crowded and always tilted. But the view from the top is unrivaled: both of Rome in general...

and the Vatican grounds. The long rectangular building is the Vatican museum with the adjacent Sistine Chapel it looks much better on the inside.

We could spend hours touring St. Peter's and an eternity in the museum, but Stefano, from our hotel, is meeting us in ten minutes.

If time is limited, grabbing a cab is a good budget tip. It's sweat-free, the fastest way from point to point.

And from the window of cab we enjoy another lively look at this great city. In Rome you simply round up whatever's on the meter. I find Roman cabbies friendly and generally honest.

This is Piazza del Popolo-to me it's piazza of the people. Another Egyptian obelisk stands like an exclamation point, marking the start of Via del Corso. Stefano and his wife Paola are out for their evening passegiata or stroll and tonight, they're taking us along. Rick: Paola! Good to see you! Stefano: Shall we go? As the sun goes down, the people come out. Modern Rome's main street Via Del Corso is a pedestrian boulevard late in the day. Like no big city in Europe, people use Rome's public places like small town squares. Rick: I love this about Europe. Everywhere at this time, people are strolling. The passeo. What do you call it in Italiano? Stefano: Passegiata Rick: Passegiata Stefano: But not in Rome, maybe in Verona or some other place, we call it a struscio. Paola: I show you what a struscio is, it is like this, you pass and you touch. Rick: Okay, a rubbing, this is a rubbing. No evening stroll is complete without an espresso stop. I'm having mine espresso decaf... decaffinato. By the way, only tourists drink cappuccino after lunch. Rick: I think it is time for a cup of coffee. Would you like some sugar? Paola: Yes. No, look. Rick: Okay, so. Voila! Stefano: That's good! Rick: That is good. Campo de' Fiori again. The artichokes and tomatoes are gone. Rome's public places change hats through the day. That colorful morning market is packed away and at night the social street lamps are turned on. Rick: Do you drink the water out of these fountains?

Stefano: Yeah, sure. Do you know what we call this one? The nasone. Paola: It looks like a big nose. Stefano: You see this one, have a drink. Paola: You know that the boys are most generous when they take you out to a nasone. Stefano: Last time I take you out to a nice place. Paola: Okay, follow me. Stefano: We go to this one, right here. Campo de' Fiori is filled with fun eateries. But we're leaving the crowds for a Baccala joint. Breaded cod fillets are a Roman specialty. "Filetti di Baccal" Rick: So, what do you call this one? Stefano: It is a Roman salad. We call it pontarella. You have anchovies and garlic. Filetti DI Baccal . Rick: So you do this? Paola: I follow you. Rick: This is good. Stefano: Is it good? For dessert, we'll savor floodlit Rome. Its best nightspots are laced together by a memorable walk. Piazza Navona is always lively after dark. This oblong square got its shape from a long-gone ancient stadium. Today, the games are limited to browsing and flirting around its famous Bernini fountain. Piazza Navona is the place for Tartufo ice cream. It's a Roman specialty. Paola: Rick, in Italy this means very delicious. Listen... the Trevi Fountain's close by. You can hear it before you see it.

While built in the 1700s, this bubbly Baroque avalanche was originally powered by an ancient Roman aqueduct. The aqueduct was repaired by a pope. He built the fountain to advertise his job well done. Romantics toss a coin over their shoulder thinking it will give them a wish and assure their return to Rome. That may sound silly, but every year I go through the ritual ... and it works!

The final stop on our floodlit walk is back where we started: at the ever-popular Spanish Steps. It's been the hangout of countless romantics over the years Wagner and Keats, Stephano and Paola, me and you.

Rome of course it's the city of Caesars, popes, and floodlit fountains. But for over three million people, it's also simply home. Thanks for joining us. Until next time, I'm Rick Steves. Keep on travelin'. Ciao!

Naples and Pompeii

I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're exploring Naples!'s a city that's living in the streets today as it has for centuries. Bella Napoli! it's lovable chaos.

Naples is Italy in the extreme. If you like Italy as far south as Rome, go further south. It just gets better. If Italy is getting a little overwhelming by the time you get down to Rome, think twice about going further. Italy intensifies as you plunge deeper. And plunging deeper is exactly what we're doing this time as we explore Naples.

We'll go shopping Neapolitan style, dodge scooters in Naples crazy traffic, explore the cities vibrant neighborhoods, admire exquisite ancient mosaics, taste pizza in its birthplace. Then we climb the lip of a slumbering volcano, and wander the amazing ruins of the Roman town it destroyed.

So many European travel dreams take you to Italy. The Bay of Naples area, about three hours south of Rome, is filled with fun and fascination. From Naples, we'll climb smoldering Mount Vesuvius and visit the ruins of Pompeii.

Centuries before Christ, Naples was a thriving Greek commercial center called Neapolis...or the "new city." Over the ages it became an important center ruled by a series of foreign overlords. In the 18th century, Naples finally became the capital of its own independent kingdom. Then, with Italian unification in 1861, Naples fell from being an important political capital to just another provincial town.

Neapolitans lament that after their city joined the newly united Italy, its riches were swallowed up by the new country. As the city's wealth was used to fund the industrial expansion of the north, Naples eventually lost its status and glamour.

Today Italy's third-largest city feels in many places like an urban jungle. Its lack of open spaces or parks, makes it Europe's most densely populated city. Watching the police try to enforce traffic sanity is almost comical, in this gritty city. The vast Piazza Garibaldi facing the train station provides an offputting welcome to those arriving by train.

But get beyond this, Naples surprises the observant traveler with its good humor and decency. It's people have an impressive knack for living, eating, and raising children in the streets.

Southern Italy's leading city, Naples offers a fascinating collection of museums, churches, and eclectic architecture. This tangled mess as intense an urban scene as anything you'll find in western Europe still somehow manages to breathe, laugh, and sing...with a captivating Italian accent.

Naples' fish market wiggles and squirts from under one of the city's surviving medieval gates. Each stall is eye-catching. Is the seafood fresh? Most of it's still alive. Wandering through this scene, enjoy the playful competition of the singing merchants.

In so many ways, you'll find southern Italy is a distinct culture from the North. People here are more fun-loving and easy-going.

Naples has long suffered from a bad reputation. Unemployment is chronically high, and past local governments set an example that the Mafia would be proud of. But lately, with mayors committed to safety and law and order, the city has more police and feels much safer.

Still, just to be cautions, assume any jostle or commotion is a smoke screen created by a thieve team up to no good. Con artists are more clever than you. Also, assume able bodied beggars are actually pick pockets. Keep your money belt hidden.

Neapolitan traffic is thrilling. Red lights are considered discretionary. Pedestrians need to be wary, particularly of the motor scooters. Be careful but assertive. While many timid tourists get stalled on the curb, I get across quicker by jaywalking in the shadow of confident locals.

Rather than seeing Naples as a list of sights, see its great archeological museum which we'll visit later and then capture the spirit of the city by walking through its historic core.

Spaccanapoli, literally "split Naples," is a perfectly straight street that dates from ancient Greek times. It leads through the colorful heart of the old city.

Echoes of ancient Neapolis survive. The original Greek street plan is remarkably intact and back then, like today...small businesses by day became private homes after hours and life tumbled out of the homes and into the lanes. Today, this scene is just one more page in the 2,000-year-old story of Naples.

And to understand that story, I'm joined by my Neapolitan friend and fellow tourguide, Roberta Mazzarella.

You name it, it occurs right on the streets today, as it has for centuries. Kids turn a wide spot in the sidewalk into a soccer field. ...walls are crusty with posters and death announcements. Both neighborly chit-chat and heated arguments take place curbside. Blue buckets help busy moms connect with the delivery boy. Everyone seems connected by cell phones. And fast food comes in the form of a folded pizza.

The tiny streetside "Chapel of Maradona" is dedicated to Diego Maradona, a soccer star who played for Naples in the 1980s.

Roberta: we love soccer.. In Italy its like a religion, in Napoli especially. Look here, look what we have...Maradona our superstar the soccer hero . That's his hair. And when he was traded, the city cried...thats' the tears ..Lacrime Napoletane! Rick: So this the temple of Maradona? Roberta:... the temple of Maradona.

Even though for many Italians, soccer is like a religion, churches remain an important part of the community. Stepping into the lavishly baroque Jesu Nouvo church you'll learn how, along with sports heroes, Neapolitans have their religious heroes too.

This much-adored statue celebrates Giuseppe Moscati, a Christian doctor famous for helping the poor. A steady stream of neighborhood faithful remember him and hope he remembers them as a stop here is a part of their daily worship routine.

He was so loved by the local community that when he died in 1927 there was a movement to make him a saint. After it was shown that he had cured two people of deadly diseases he was fast tracked to sainthood in 1987.

The church where the saint preached has made a small museum covered with Ex Voti. An Ex Voto is given as thanks for prayers in this case to Saint Moscati that were answered. Each has a symbol of the ailment cured...heart disease, lung problems, a sick child, whatever...

A display shows the great doctor's apartment, his possessions and photos.

A big bomb casing hangs in the corner. In 1943, it fell through the dome of Father Moscati's church, but destroyed almost nothing...some say yet another miracle.

The nearby Spanish Quarter is Naples at its rawest and most characteristic. Pause at any street corner to enjoy a vivid slice of Neapolitan life.

And don't forget to look up. With no yards, families make full use of their tiny balconies.

Roberta: This is Basso in the streets. Rick: Basso living, what does that mean Basso? Roberta: It can mean low. Rick: So literally low. Roberta: Yeah,it's like a small apartment, 2, 3 bedrooms, 4,5,6, 7,8, 9 people Rick: Okay the traditional sort of romantic life in the streets? Roberta: Life in the streets, yeah. Many people might have money to move away from here but they still stay here.

No taste of Naples is complete without a pizza. Antica Pizzeria da Michele is a favorite. Baking just the right combination of fresh dough, mozzarella, and tomatoes in traditional wood-burning ovens, this restaurant is considered by many the birthplace of pizza. They brag it takes several years of practice to get the dough just right. Catering to pizza purists, the menu is brief...just two kinds: marinara comes with tomato sauce, oregano, and garlic, no cheese. Margherita celebrates the unification of Italy. Named after the first Italian queen, it comes with the colors of the Italian flag: red tomatoes, white mozzarella cheese, and a garnish of green basil.

Italians who come to the States are not impressed by thick and fancy pizzas. Judging from the enthusiasm of those munching these hot and tasty pies, what really matters is not the quantity of ingredients but the quality.

The sweeping Bay of Naples arcs from its teeming city south past the ancient ruins of Pompeii all the way genteel Sorrento, the gateway to the Amalfi Coast. And towering above is the mighty volcano, Mount Vesuvius.

The entire bay is well served by a rickety but reliable commuter train. Because it circles under Mount Vesuvius, the train's called the Circumvesuviana.

From the Pompeii stop, shuttle vans take curious visitors up the volcano to the end of the road. From there, a thirty minute hike takes you to the 4,000 foot high summit of mainland Europe's only active volcano. Belly up to the crater edge viewpoints. The last eruption was in 1944. The steaming vents are a reminder that while Vesuvius may be quiet, it's just taking a geological nap. Hiking around the crater's lip you enjoy spectacular views of its fertile and densely populated surroundings.

While Mount Vesuvius is sleepy today, in 79 AD, the volcano exploded, sending a cloud of ash and cinders 12 miles into the sky. It spewed for 18 hours sending a red-hot avalanche racing down the side of the mountain at nearly 100 mph burying the city of Pompeii in 20 feet of scalding debri.

Life in Pompeii was stopped in its tracks. Today, excavations of this once booming city offer the best look anywhere at ancient Roman life. For archaeologists, Pompeii was a shake-and-bake windfall.

Ancient Rome controlled the entire Mediterranean Sea. That made it a kind of free-trade zone and Pompeii was an important port town. It was big 20,000 people. It was an important commercial center imagine this square just busy with market activity. And because it was a port, it was a sailor's quarter so it was fun: lots of bars, baths, brothels, restaurants, and places of entertainment.

The main square, or forum, was Pompeii's commercial, religious, and political center. The Curia housed the government. It was built of brick and mortar...a Roman invention. It was once faced with gleaming marble. The basilica, or law court, was nearby. Here you see the basilica floorplan that medieval churches adopted after Christianity became legal.

In good Roman style, the city was well-organizedcontained within its wall with a grid street plan. Remains of homes give a glimpse into Roman lifestyles.

The House of Vetti, the home of a wealthy merchant, shows the typical layout of a mansion. It's colonnaded atrium with formal garden and water flowing to give freshness was ringed by colorfully frescoed rooms. Roman dining rooms were always richly decorated. This one shows little cupids playing out commercial activities of the town: collecting flowers, taking your knocks on a chariot, and enjoying the local wine.

For a better understanding of life at Pompeii, Italian archeologist Gaetano Manfredi is taking us on a walk. Pompeii's impressive baths were just past the gymnasium. After working out, Romans would relax, be pampered, and enjoy the social scene in a public bath.

Gaetano: This was the tepidarium so people coming from gymnasium after sport they were massaged by the slave. Inside the niches there were oils, creams, perfumes for the body massages. A part of the ceiling is still original and so we can see how beautiful decorated it was once on the ceiling...they were massaged by the slaves 25, 30 minutes before going to the sauna. Because tepidarium means lukewarm bath.

Gaetano: After the tepidarium there was the caldarium, which was the hot bath. Beside this wall there was a room where the slaves made the fire. The hot air went underneath the double floor because this floor is supported by little columns and the hot air went between the double walls. There was a circulation of hot air and just when everything was really hot, they opened the water fountain over here, the water slowly fell on the floor, the floor was hot and this produced steam.

Gaetano: The last stop was the frigidariumthe cold bath. As we still do today, after the sauna to harden the muscles and for the body's circulation...the cold bath.

Water was abundant in this well-plumbed city. Fountains provided a social center at intersections. And a steady stream of water flushed the chariot rutted streets clean.

Gaetano: So why the stones in the street here? Well there was always water flowing along the roads and washing the roads so that's why the sidewalk over and the stepping stones Rick: So the pedestrians walk across and not get wet? Gaetano: Yes to the crossroad avoiding wet feet. Rick: Very smart

While the site is evocative, the horrors of that day in 79 AD are hard to imagine.

Gaetano: Thousands of people died in this eruption. Here we have the cast of those people. During the excavations, sometimes the archaeologists found under the volcanic materials cement the spaces left by the composition of the bodies. And so what they did, they injected a liquid plaster in these empty spaces. The liquid plaster took the form of the previous bodies and when it dried up the archaeologists clean all the ash away and the appeared, the body, in the same position the man was when he died 2000 years ago. Rick: One day a thriving city, the next day this.

Pompeii was excavated back in the 1700s before Italy was united. The local king who ruled from Naples demanded "Bring me the best of whatever you find!" That's why, even though this site is so impressive, the finest art and artifacts of Pompeii ended up back in Naples, at the National Museum of Archaeology.

For lovers of antiquity, this museum by itself makes Naples a worthwhile stop. The city's one essential museum visit offers the best possible peek into the art of Pompeii. The collection ranges from grand statuary and exquisite mosaics to the most intimate details of everyday life.

It's easy to forget that, for many centuries, the people of Pompeii painted Mount Vesuvius like this...before it blew its top.

These bronze statues, like so much of the art from Pompeii are 1st century BC copies of 4th century BC Greek originals. They decorated the holiday home of Julius Caesar's father-in-law. Resting Hermes with his tired little heel wings is taking a break...but it's clear, he'll be flying off again soon. The Drunken Faun singing and snapping his fingers to the beat, is clearly living for today true to the Epicurean philosophy Caesar's father-in-law subscribed to.

Pompeii's many finely crafted mosaics give a sense of the sophistication and wealth of the city...and its people.

Culture thrived at Pompeii. This mosaic takes us backstage at the theater just before curtain time...actors are being dressed, instruments tuned...and the masks that still symbolize comedy and tragedy today are ready to go.

Another finely detailed and realistic mosaic-shows street musicians boisterously entertaining those not quite up to a night at the theater.

This scene from the grand Battle of Alexander with over a million pieces decorated a floor in Pompeii's House of the Faun. In this epic battle, Alexander and his Greeks meet and defeat Darius and the Persians. The outcome is clear by the fear in the eyes of the Persians and the focus and determination of Alexander the Great. Notice the dynamism, shading, perspective everything the Renaissance artists hard to relearn 1500 years later.

The Secret Room contains an assortment of erotic frescoes and statues. These were commonplace in Pompeii's wealthier homes. In fact, the rich actually commissioned this art to entertain their guests. Some of it's humorous...some of it's erotic (you'll have to come here in person to actually see that)...and some were simply beautiful.

In this scene, a lusty faun playfully pulls the sheet off what he thinks is a beautiful woman, only to be shocked to learn she's a hermaphrodite perhaps the original "Mamma mia!" Venus, the patron goddess of Pompeii, was a favorite pin-up girl. Again, the art of Pompeii shows an intimate and impressive mastery of realism. The much copied Three Graces celebrated elegance, beauty, and a love of life.

The museum also has highlights from other parts of the Roman Empire.

The Farnese Collection fills a grand hall with statues excavated from the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. The collection's centerpiece is the largest intact statue from antiquitysaid to be carved out of one piece of marble. It was "restored" in part by Michelangelo. The Toro Farnese features a tangled group with a woman being tied to a bull.

Once upon an ancient Greek time, that woman, Dirce seduced a king who abandoned his pregnant Queen. The abandoned queen gave birth to twin boys, who grew up, and after killing their deadbeat dad, they tied Dirce to the horns of a bull to be bashed against a mountain. The action is masterfully caught as the hoofs flail, capes fly, and the dog snarls. You can almost hear the bull snorting. The jilted mother, Queen serenely oversees the action as ancient justice prevails.

Stepping back out on the streets, the immense Piazza Plebiscito celebrates the plebiscite or vote in 1861, when Naples chose to join Italy. The Royal Palace illustrates how the city has suffered through many foreign rulers. Each of the eight kings in the niches is from a different dynasty: Norman, German, French, Spanish, Spanish, Spanish, French the brother-in-law of Napoleon and, finally, an Italian: Victor Emmanuel II, Italy's first king.

The adjacent Victorian iron and glass of the 100-year-old Galleria Umberto I takes you back to a grander time. Newly united Italy was flush with energy and optimism and this was a virtual palace for the public.

And, across the street, the Gran Caff Gambrinus retains the elegance of the 1860s. It's a classic place to sample a unique Neapolitan pastry called sfogliatella a crispy pastry filled with sweet ricotta cheese. You can stand at the bar or pay double to sit. Either way, imagine the caf buzzing with the intellectuals, journalists, and high society bigshots who sipped and munched here during Naples' 19thcentury heyday.

Vibrant Naples, the capital of south Italy, is a spring board for plenty of travel fun. We climbed Mt. Vesuvious, resurrected the ruble at Pompeii but that's just the beginning of this region's charms. The genteel town of Sorrento provides a comfy gateway to the dramatic Amalfi coast. And a short jet boat ride takes you to the enchanting Isle of Capri. But all that will need to await another travel adventure.

Europe offers a life time of travel experiences. And one by one, we're sharing them all. I hope you enjoyed our look at colorful Naples and evocative Pompeii. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on traveling. Ciao.