I’ve never been to Italy before, but I had no doubt that I’d absolutely love it, and surprise, I did.
I really can’t say why, in almost 20 years of active overseas travel, I never went to Italy, even though its wealth of history, art and culture made it a natural must-visit destination. Because this was my first time, I wanted to concentrate on the obvious iconic places and not spread out too much, so we limited ourselves to Venice, Florence and Rome, with one day trip to the Tuscan countryside. Unsurprisingly, I took more photos in Italy than in Ireland and Scotland combined.
Fridge magnet count: 5
Favourite meals: scrumptious seafood soup in Venice that was packed with flavour, the Florentine steak experience, heavenly tiramisu at a restaurant we went to for my birthday in Rome.
Best gelato: at an award-winning gelateria in San Gimignano. I don’t know if it was Best Ever, but it’s definitely up there.
Worst gelato: one should never eat at super-touristy spots, but I made a mistake with a gelato sold at Ponte Vecchio in Florence. It was grainy, mediocre, and cost me a whopping 8 Euro.
Most valuable wardrobe item: my pair of Skechers walking shoes. They’re hardly the height of fashion, but they saved my feet, especially from Rome’s cobblestone streets.
Maybe it was the lack of sleep due to an early flight, but on my first day in Venice I felt like pinching myself constantly; it was just too surreal being surrounded by the famous scenery I’ve seen countless times in travel brochures at work. Of course, no images can compare to experiencing the beauty of Venice in real life, which even the giant hordes of tourists can’t spoil. As we quickly found out, Google Maps is your best friend in Venice, and Italy in general; getting lost in the web of alleyways is not so romantic when you’re lugging your heavy suitcase behind you.
We didn’t do the gondola ride; I’m not against cheesy touristy things, but according to my Mum it’s way too short and overpriced.
We did spend half a day on a trip to the islands of Murano and Burano. The former is famous for its Venetian glass factories, and the latter for its brightly coloured fishermen’s houses and lace products. I bought myself a black Murano glass necklace that was the least gaudy thing at the factory shop; I’m a fan of bright colours but the crazy colour combos were too much even for me.
Firenze, as Italians call it, was even more packed with tourists than Venice, if that’s possible. Our accommodation in Florence, while not necessarily the most comfortable, was certainly memorable. Once you opened the door on the street, you were greeted with a looong flight of stairs, and a fresco of a saint on the wall at the top – it always gave us a fright at night. The room had no windows and an old medieval wall on one side, which gave it a dungeon feel, and because the ceiling was so tall there was room for a mezzanine bedroom.
Seeing the ornate Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, or Duomo as it’s also known, slide into view for the first time was a truly breathtaking “wow” moment. The intricate latticework of green and white marble is absolutely gorgeous; by contrast, the interior is very simple and stark. We braved the 412-step climb up the bell tower and were amply rewarded with the views of Florence and the cathedral’s dome. The Uffizi Gallery, with its collection of ancient Roman, medieval and Renaissance art, was another highlight. Someone with a morbid sense of humour has arranged a violent little corner, with artworks like Caravaggio’s severed head of Medusa, David and Goliath’s head, and Artemisia Gentileschi’s gory Judith Beheading Holofernes.
Siena, San Gimignano and Pisa
While in Florence, we went on a day trip around Tuscany, visiting Siena, San Gimignano and Pisa. We also had a lunch stop at a winery in the Chianti region; I’m usually not a fan of wine but the Chianti I tried there was the closest I’ve ever come to liking it.
We had a short but interesting tour with a local guide (engaging and enthusiastic), visiting the impressive main square where the annual horse race event, Palio, is held. Siena Cathedral’s stripey interior is also quite magnificent.
An impossibly scenic hilltop village, made even more scenic by the colourful flags in preparation for a medieval festival. We also got our best views of the idyllic Tuscan countryside.
Yes the Leaning Tower is deservedly iconic, and you absolutely have to take that cheesy photo propping it up or your life is not complete. For me though the unexpected highlight was Camposanto Monumentale di Pisa, a sort of unusual indoor cemetery. It’s a huge space with faded frescoes, lots of beautiful sculptures and sarcophagi, and blissfully no crowds.
It’s impossible not to be impressed with Rome’s imperial magnificence. We had five days there, which gave us plenty of time to explore its famous sights: the Trevi Fountain, Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica, the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, Piazza Navona, the Colosseum and Roman Forum. We also took a bus trip to visit Villa d’Este and its World Heritage gardens.
The weather got hotter the further south we went; by the time we got to Rome midday siesta at the hotel became a must. The upside were the beautiful balmy evenings, which I wish I could bottle and take home with us. Evening was also often the time for the unexpected highlights, like a walk alongside the river bank lined with cafes, or the stunning view from the roof of the grandiose Altar of the Fatherland at Piazza Venezia. We gazed at the remains of the Roman Forum bathed in golden light, and tried in vain to comprehend the sheer span of thousands of years these ruins witnessed.
St. Peter’s Basilica made me think back to Bill Bryson’s book about his travels in Europe, where he descibed it as the only building I have ever been in where I have felt like sinking to my knees, clasping my hands heavenward and crying, “Take me home, Lord.” I can’t say I had exactly the same reaction, but in my eyes it is definitely the Church to Rule Them All.