Oddly, I have always felt a strong love for Italy. Maybe it’s because it offers three of my most favourite things in the whole world (not including you Dad) – deep and interesting history, good wine, and amazing food.
Before leaving New Zealand, I was adamant I would see as much of Italia as I could. It started with two birthday weekends in Venice and Nice – just two-day tasters of a country I would fall deeply in love with. So from Spain, we hopped on a plane (very exciting after about a month of bussing and coaches) and headed for a city oozing with history, Rome.
Rome! Five days in a city I have wanted to visit for as long as I could remember. And it couldn’t have started any better. Our accommodation was a great Airbnb room, literally next door to the Vatican, with a view of St Peters, AND as we got off the bus from the Airport, two monks got off with us! I couldn’t help but giggle with excitement.
Day one continued to impress. Arriving late afternoon, it was soon time to find dinner – a moment I had been looking forward to all my life. Dinner in Rome! Meeting with a few school chums from back home, we started to walk around looking for that perfect, traditional restaurant. We had met at Piazza Navona, so were weary of all the ‘touristy’ and expensive restaurants competing for our custom. But we were starving. So decided to narrow down the options by price per litre of wine. Effective don’t you think? We found a quaint place on a very cute street offering a litre of house red wine for 9 euro! We were sold. Surely the food couldn’t taste that bad.
Funnily enough, we hit the absolute jackpot. Very well priced, brilliant service and some of the most delicious food I’ve ever tasted. So good in fact we went back four out of the five nights we were there – totally against the rules of ‘foodie culture’ I understand, but I believe if something is that good, why look elsewhere? Eventually the waiter was giving us free Prosecco on arrival and Limoncello post meal, due to our returning custom. It was called Ciccia Bomba. Our favourite dish was the clam spaghetti in white wine and garlic sauce.
I had heard mixed opinions on Rome – I personally adored it. Every which way you walk you will come across something to read about, something with a long and important history. We couldn’t get over how many ruins there were scattered about the place. I definitely recommend walking everywhere if you are up to it. It can get a little tiring – especially if you fill your days like we do – but you will not be disappointed. Getting lost in Rome truly makes the experience.
Obviously we saw all the main attractions and a few others. Here are my summarised thoughts and some tips on visiting the big three :
The Vatican Museum – I had seen the TV progamme, The Borgias, and I was chomping at the bit to get behind those Vatican walls. I am also quite well read up on the history of the Vatican the papacy and the power it had (has?) over the world.
The museum was really good, if not maybe a bit overwhelming. So much to see and a rubbish map to get around. While the Sistene Chapel was incredible, I actually think the Raphael Rooms were the most impressive! The frescoes were actually breathtaking and we spent most our time in these four rooms. Tips: Book your tickets online! Holy cow, the line to get in was massive. Luckily, we had now learned our lesson and researched tickets online first and boom! Within five minutes we had the tickets and walked straight to the front of the line. Also, you have to get the audio guide. There really is no point without it!
St Peters Basilica – Now this is how you build a church. As I mentioned in my last post about my time in Spain, at this point in such a journey, churches are a bit ‘same old same old’ and the initial awe wears off fast. But not in St Peters. This church is immaculate, balanced, serene and simply incredible.
Tips: DO NOT be afraid of the initial cue! Yes it looks enormous, circling around St Peters Square, but this is just to go through security and it moves really fast. Also, make sure your knees and shoulders are covered. Again, an audio guide will make this experience a lot more worthwhile. I can’t say if there is one available there, but we downloaded Rick Steve’s Audio Europe and it has a great walking tour for the basilica. Finally, it is definitely worth the extra 7 euro to head up into Michaelangelo’s dome. The adventure actually getting into the dome is very exciting and the views of Rome cannot be matched. But do be prepared to cue for a while here.
The Roman Forum – Ok, confession time. I definitely did not do the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill as well as I should have. Not going to lie, it was a bloody hot day and the Roman Forum is massive. Also, we didn’t have our trusty audio guide with us! So there was a lot of walking, not a heck of a lot knowing what we were looking at. There were plaques around, but in that heat, it is very hard to see straight, let alone reading paragraphs of information.
However, it is a must-see! The history here dates back so incredibly far. For example, this is where the Senate—as well as Republican government itself—began!
Pisa and Cinque Terre
I think most of my fellow Italy travellers would agree with me that Pisa is really just a day-trip kind of place. The city itself is very sweet and nice to walk around at night, but there really isn’t much to do except see the infamous tower – which really is on one hell of a lean! However, I found watching the “holder uppers” the most entertaining part.
So with that done and dusted, it was onto the mind-blowing town of Cinque Terre. Located on the rugged coast of the Italian Riviera, Cinque Terre comprises of five villages: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.
To get to these towns, you can catch the train (a very unreliable and inconsistent one however). But where’s the fun in that? Get your walking shoes on and hike there! There is a walking trail that connects all five and some take as little as half an hour. Unfortunately however, torrential rains in 2011 took out some of the easier tracks. But there are alternative routes – some literally vertically up and straight back down again.
While parts of the walks are hard, they are incredible. The views are out of this world and all five towns are breathtakingly beautiful, with their colourful terrace houses built into the cliff sides. We were lucky enough to stay in an amazing sea-view apartment in Riomaggiore (http://bit.ly/1tjdA2p see room number 2) which in my bias opinion, I thought was the best town in Cinque Terre.
It was small and a bit more quiet than the others whereas, the likes of Manarola was packed! Remember, if you do the walks, take your swimmers with you! Every town has a place to swim and you will get hot. I think it is the sweatiest I have ever been and it was coming out of peak season!
I think there will be a lot of disagreement with me on this, but after all it’s hype, I was quite disappointed in Florence. I just found it a bit…*shoulder shrug*…mediocre. Again, this could be down to the kind of holiday I am on (one that needs to stretch every euro as far as it will go!) But for me, it felt like the perfect place to go for a weekend shopping holiday with some girlfriends, where you could take in a few cultural sights and good food as well.
Don’t get me wrong. It was a very beautiful city – although I personally don’t think as beautiful as Rome – and the Statue of David was incredible. Luckily, we met with very good friends, hired bikes and had a blast dodging all the tour groups and cycling around the city. Also, I have to say the Galileo Science Museum was brilliant – a great scene change from all the art and sculpture museums and actually really interesting. Galileo’s own finger bones are showcased there! Cool huh?
A final highlight was a fantastic restaurant tucked away down a street you would never simply walk past. It is called La Beppa Fioraia and it is a great escape from the city. It is quiet with an awesome decor of grass (although fake) picnic tables and colourful umbrellas everywhere. Better yet it was filled with locals and the food was outstanding. My favorite dish was the antipasto which consisted of everything from goats cheese, to home-made pate and delicious dough ball things called Coccoli.
Palermo to Milazzo to Stromboli
So, safe to say I was really ready to leave Florence and was so excited for the next few days of adventure. We were heading to an active volcano!
But first we were breaking up the journey with a couple of days in Palermo – the Mafia’s head office apparently. Could have skipped this place if we had the choice I reckon. A cool town, but, it was just another town really. One of it’s USP’s however was its 600 year old Arabic market! A hive of fresh fruit, vegetables and seafood activity, with what seemed like hundreds of crazy 50+ year old Italian men all yelling stuff. I loved it! What an atmosphere!
Then it was onto a bus to Milazzo. We were so disappointed that we had chosen to stay only one night here. It was really just to have somewhere to lay our heads as we had a 7:00am ferry to catch in the morning. But it was such a beautiful seaside town! If I was a bazillionaire, I’d definitely have a holiday home here.
Then, morning broke the next day and it was time. Something I had been looking forward to for weeks. Not only were we about to board a ferry that used hydrofoils (cool!!) but we were riding that speed machine to an active volcano, on which we were living for the next three days – Stromboli.
Pulling up to Stromboli’s dock, you could see the smoke gushing from the top of the volcano. What made it all the more real was the placard warning you of all the dangers to be aware of on the island, including eruptions, falling rocks and tsunamis. Exciting!
To my surprise, the place was buzzing! I had expected quite a barren place with a population of maybe 20. But to my delight there were cafes, shops, restaurants and beautifully coloured houses all over the island. To get around, there are only two main streets that you can drive a Piaggio through, but paths and driveways all spaghetti off these roads – meaning it is actually easy to get lost, would you believe.
We were lucky enough to find a sweet Airbnb location, with our own private black-sand beach. Our host was also incredibly cool. A hiking guide, she was a huge volcano enthusiast. She also explained that the two rocks in the below picture, are chemically exactly the same. However one is spat from the volcano, full of gas, and the other is found inside! How cool is that?!
Stromboli really is a little oasis – besides the constant impending doom of falling victim to a volcanic eruption.
Speaking of which, one of the main attractions to us visiting Stromboli, was to actually climb the volcano. However, that wind of excitement was soon knocked out of us when we realised we couldn’t have come at a worse time. Basically, there was a huge buildup of gas where the lava was no longer pouring out of a vent. SO! It was too dangerous to walk to the top due to it blowing at any point, but it also meant there wasn’t a heck of a lot of lava flow. I dubbed this point in time, “no man’s land”.
But, we weren’t to be disheartened. We packed a bottle of red and headed off around 6:00pm. We climbed as far as we could up Stromboli, to the 300m mark, and settled in for nightfall. Here, we did see a bit of lava action and rolling glowing boulders, but also an amazing Mediterranean sunset. It was still worth it for sure.
Napoli, Almalfi Coast and Pompeii
With one of the best pizzas I have ever tasted, we boarded a ten-hour overnight ferry to Napoli (or Naples…if you didn’t figure that out). We paid the extra for a cabin so we were refreshed and ready to go as soon as we docked.
Now, we had heard very mixed reports about Napoli – to be honest, most of them not so good. So we only had a day here to explore. We dropped our bags at a luggage check in the main train station and headed for the one attraction I was interested in – the Archiological Museum. My interest was founded on the fact that apparently so much of what was discovered in Pompeii – frescoes, pots etc – were showcased here.
It was closed. Bugger.
So that through a spanner in the works. Instead we went for a walk up to the catacombs and did the tour there, which was actually very good. However, the highlight for me was actually walking around Napoli! The best way I can describe it is an Italian city that is stuck in time. You really feel like you are walking around 1930s Italy. Yes it’s hectic, a little dirty and quite overwhelming, but you get a true sense of Italian identity here. The city is so distinctive and buzzing! I wish we had spent more time there.
We then based ourselves in Salerno – a bit of a nothing town – but it had great public transport access to Almalfi Coast and Pompeii.
First up was the incredibly well preserved city of Pompeii. We all know the story – Mt Vesuvius blew the heck off its top and buried the ancient town in ash, preserving houses, shops, brothels and even people. I had always wanted to visit Pompeii and did not disappoint.
However, we found it was very unorganised. You need to get the audio guide, of course, but the way the walking plan is laid out is quite daft at times, not making a lot of sense. Also, the site is huge! Take a packed lunch and plenty of water – we were there for six hours!
I think a lot of travellers also have the same conundrum that we faced – Pompeii or Herculaneum (another town buried by that ba****d Vesuvius). Well, we actually ended up doing both – but definitely not in the same day! My evaluation is as follows: Herculaneum is a lot better preserved, with much of the same to see as Pompeii, but it is a lot smaller. When you visit Pompeii, you are walking the very same streets of a massive city that they were using then. You feel a lot more immersed in your surroundings. So, I personally preferred Pompeii.
Finally, it was onto the last leg of our Italian tour (booo!) – the infamous Amalfi Coast. Again, I had heard very, very good things. We hopped on a ferry and blasted it to Almalfi – a gorgeous coastal town full of colour, personality…and tourists. It was so busy which I know is to be expected, but that doesn’t mean I like it!
We heard you could catch a bus to a couple of other towns on the Almalfi Coast, but why bus when you can walk! (I typed that with a lot of sarcasm). Our first stop was to the town of Ravello which it was recommended to bus up to and walk down. We did the opposite, like the rebels we are. Literally a hike up god-knows how many stairs, past people’s front doors and yapping dogs, to the cutest cliff-side town looking down to the coast. It took about 2 hours but it was actually a great walk through areas you wouldn’t see in a bus.
After a pit-stop break in Ravello, we then walked down the other side to Minori – where we stopped for a dip in the sea, then up and around the corner to Miori, where we had dinner on the beach. Four towns in one day? Not too shabby.
I really loved Almalfi – the walks produced some spectacular views – however (and a lot of people might shake their heads at me) I much preferred Cinque Terre. For the similar experience, the towns of Cinque Terre are a lot more remote, more contained and just nicer (in my humble opinion!)
So that’s it! Italy was over. I couldn’t believe it! While this post is extremely long (sorry about that), this part of our trip, sadly, went past in the blink of an eye! Confession: I said Almalfi was our final stop, however, we had to fly out of Rome… so where did we go for dinner? What a way to finish our Italian experience than dinner at our favourite Italian restaurant – Ciccia Bomba! We even got that free Prosecco.
Tips for visiting Italia
These generic tips might help you on your Italian escape
1. Coffee culture
You might or might not have realised from archived posts that I am a coffee fanatic. I love it, and am very fussy about it too. Obviously, Italy is known for its coffee culture. And boy, do they have some good tasting grinds. But, their coffee’s with milk i.e. cappuccinos and lattes are terrible. I have no idea what it is and I gave them so many chances to impress. A good friend told me its because they have rubbish quality milk. But they are also lacking in the skills of using that milk with coffee – even if it is poor. I stuck to espressos.
Sorry, I digress from my tip. The tip is to drink at the bar. All the cafes serve coffees over the bar. If you were to actually sit down, you could get charged up to three times the price! Watch the locals, stand amongst them and enjoy! Also, even though you might have already paid, its customary to leave a coin behind, almost like a tip, but it can be any amount.
2. Drinks can be deceiving
We were caught out a few times by this. When dining out, we would look at menus and find very reasonably priced meals – some as little as 5 euro for a pesto spaghetti! So we would sit down, choose our food then consult the drinks menu, which were often so extortionately priced. 4 euro for a can of coke!? If you like anything other than tap water (which in most cases they won’t serve anyway) then make sure you check out the drink prices, otherwise that ‘cheap eat’ you were looking for does not work out so budget friendly.
Also, my biggest advice is to always order the house wine which is usually served in 1, 1/2 or 1/4 litres, rather than a bottle. It is reliably fantastic wine and so, so cheap.
3. Aperitivo time is happy time
Around 6:30pm to 9:00pm is what I like to call Italian Tapas time. It is where in almost all food establishments, you can order a drink and it will be accompanied by an aperitivo – little snacks that can range from simple crisps to bruschetta, meats and cheeses! It’s great for warming up the old stomach while waiting for that 9:00pm dinner time. But be aware, do not go crazy at the aperitivo buffets. You will offend and get dirty looks.
Order the pesto clam spaghetti. You just simply must.
The next stop should be interesting, somewhere I admittedly know nothing about – Croatia. Spoiler alert! The first part of our trip involves family friends, a private yacht and island hopping. Stay tuned!