I could have spent a month in Rome. It had a similar effect on me as London and Paris -- the word that comes to mind is gravitas. It's difficult to overplay the presence of the city's ancient history -- I've never been in a city that has succeeded in preserving so much of its ancient reminders. But Rome is much more than Roman ruins, more even than the Vatican and the symbolic yet paradoxical shadow it casts on the local culture. And it is virtually impossible to move about the city without noticing the astonishing attention -- and priority -- given to works of art. Even Florence, in all its Renaissance splendor, can't compete with the countless piazzas adorned with elaborate Bernini fountains and statuary.
Reluctantly leaving Rome behind, we trained to Florence, where we picked up a rental car and drove to a retreat center called Poggio Ubertini, about 30 kilometers outside the city. As we climbed the suburban hills in our peppy little Opel, the view of the Tuscan countryside below brought ooh's and ah's from the wives while I forced myself to keep my eyes on the winding road. Each day in Tuscany brought its own set of adventures, from the obligatory and timeless Renaissance masterpieces in Florence to the picturesque hill towns of Siena, San Gimignano and Monteriggioni, from the magnificent Duomo to the salt-of-the-earth Ammirabile family and their wine and olive enterprise we were able to visit.