The culture, the cuisine, the climate, who wouldn’t want to travel around Italy and soak it all up. It is something that had been on my mind for a few months when thinking about what to do and where to go in the summer in 2003, and finally being of an age where I had a little disposable income for the first time, it seemed like a good place to start this traveling thing. However, not really knowing the best place to visit first, myself and my girlfriend decided to do it all. With two weeks of vacation time booked, Italy very quickly became the destination at the forefront of our minds.

Italy Map

Preparation

Wanting to travel around the whole country to take in the various sights and cities, we figured out the best way forward was to get a EuroRail ticket and use the supposedly impeccable train service. Besides, who doesn’t like traveling by train, especially in a foreign land. They weren’t overly expensive and allowed us to be free of constraints that flights would have imposed on us. The idea of being able to hop-on, hop-off as we pleased was appealing.

Going down this route though did mean that package tours and the like were out of the question, no matter how cheap they seemed. But wanting to travel around Italy properly, this seemed like the best idea, even if it did add to the cost. Booking hotels independent wasn’t going to be easy, but before even contemplating this we had to find some cheap flights.

Soon enough we found the perfect match between price and airport. FlyBe flew from our local airport in Southampton direct to Milan for a reasonable sum of £75 return each. Booked. And we now had means of getting to Italy as well as a start date, start point, end date and end point. We found a map and started planning.

Starting in the north, we chose a route from Milan down to Rome, then further south to Naples before making a u-turn and heading back north to Florence, over to Venice and then back to Milan for the return flight. And with the internet still in its infancy, we went to our local STA Travel agent knowing they would be able to help with hotels on an itinerary such as this. With the EuroRail pass, the flights and the hotels, our travel and accommodation came to about £600. For peak season in July, this wasn’t so bad.

Milano

Arriving at Bergamo airport, just North of Milan, we found it easier than expected to get a coach transfer to the city centre where the Hotel Amadeus was ready for us. The hotel was cheap and fairly basic but being central allowed us to explore the city with ease.

Only spending a couple of days in Milan – we would be returning in a couple of weeks – we embarked on a quick whistle-stop tour of the city and tried to acclimatise ourselves to the soaring heat before we got ready for the long journey south to Rome. Europe was experiencing a bit of heatwave and although Britain was enjoying temperatures close to 30°C, Italy was basking itself in temperatures north of 40°C.

Getting used to the heat, the food and generally finding our way around, we visited the Milano Duomo, the city’s enormous basilica situated right in the hustle and bustle of centre. The gothic facade standing somewhat intimidatingly over the square was a stark reminder of Italy’s alignment with the Catholic church, but also an impressive feat of engineering and architecture.


On the third day in Italy, we found our way to way to Milano Centrale Stazione to navigate our way around buying tickets, finding trains and traveling to Rome, the country’s capital.


Roma

Arriving in Rome on the most luxurious train ride I have ever taken – realising the price of tickets we upgraded our class and enjoyed legroom and air-con – I was amazed at the sheer elegance of the station. Never has such a functional and well-used building looked so beautiful and inspiring. Only the Italian’s could make such a structure into a work of art.

Staying in a hostel, my initial thoughts were that of cramped rooms, smelly feet and snoring tourists keeping me awake all night. However, I am pleased to say that our city centre location was spacious, air-conditioned, en-suite and full of normal people making their own travels through life. We rarely saw one another as most of our time was spent in the city gawping at the sights and sounds. My anticipation was not thankfully not realised and our accommodation in Rome was pleasant.

After marveling another impressive train station and getting to grips with the hostel, we ventured out to orientate ourselves with the city. We visited the Trevi Fountain (and lost a few cents as per the tradition) and also the Pantheon, as well as enjoying some gelato – quite possibly the best ice cream in the whole world. Getting quite savvy with this tourism thing, Claire and I would often find ourselves standing close to a tour group, being told of the history of the place by an expert local. Sometimes, given the crowded nature of the attractions, one cannot help but overhear. And so it is we learned to gain inside knowledge not always inscribed in guide books, for free.

Fontana di Trevi

The Fontana di Trevi sits in front of a large building – the Palazzo Poli – and originally was the site of a junction between three roads, possibly hence the name, tre vie. It is also the terminal points of the fresh water aqueducts Vergine and Virgo. Another argument for its name comes from the Roman Virgin, Trevia. She apparently showed the aqueduct engineer Agrippa the source of the water.

Nicola Salvi was awarded the commission of building the fountain in 1732 but died eleven years before its completion in 1762. One story goes that Salvi set up his work table in what is now the centre of the basin. From here he could oversee the works unfolding before his eyes. However, Salvi was not popular with the locals and a barbershop owner would often throw insults his way. So irritated by the distractions, Salvi had a large vase ornament sculptured and placed in a way to block the view from his table and the shop. The vase is still there on the right-hand side and is called Asso di Coppe, the Ace of Spades.

Also of note – I like to learn – is that the upper right window of the Palazzo Poli is actually fake. The window has been boarded up and painted to look like a window. The myth is that a resident of the building was either murdered or committed suicide, their body found at the bottom of the building, seemingly having fallen from the room above. Local residents then started seeing ghosts of the fallen person through the window, and so it was removed and the space covered.

One highlight from wandering around aimlessly is the excitement of finding something that you didn’t know existed. A good example of this would be the Cappuccini Monastery and its crypt, located off the beaten track down a side street. The monastery was once located elsewhere, but moved in 1624 to its present location. With space for burial at a premium, the deceased were exhumed after 30 years to make way for the recently departed. In order to remain at the monastery, the exhumed bones were used to adorn the interior of the crypt.


It seems wrong to do this, but it is actually quite moving when you think of the alternatives. Wanting to keep the deceased in their monastery but unable to rebury, their remains became a part of the new building. Although not an all-together conventional way of decorating a place of devotion and worship, the result is quite spectacular. Each chamber tells a story and once you get past the fact that it is all real, you realise it is actually quite beautiful. The final chamber has the remains of a skeleton with a simple plaque underneath:

What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be…

Another story relating to the monastery is the creation of the word cappuccino and its association with coffee. The monks used to wear brown gowns with white hats, much like the colour of coffee with foamed milk on top. Although there are lots of stories relating to cappuccino, so I’m not completely convinced this is 100% accurate. But if the locals swear by it, then it must be true.

The chapel and crypt were free to enter and admire, although a donation is encouraged as is the purchase of a postcard or some-such souvenir.

Day Four took us to the colossal Coliseum – and boy was it hot. With the Midday sun beating down, we kept as much as possible in he shade. However, the lure of the Ancient Forums and Celestine Hill couldn’t be abated, and being part of the ancient city, shade wasn’t to be found. It was in Rome that we realised a cheap way of getting refreshed.

Although Italian cities have plenty of drinking fountains dotted around, the water isn’t as thirst-quenching as an ice-cold drink. However, with the obvious market of rich tourists, the prices of said drinks are extortionate to say the least. One place though has fixed prices, and fairly reasonable prices to boot; McDonalds. An icy Coke for a Euro seemed like the bargain of a lifetime and also afforded us some time in an air-conditioned room to cool off.

The Coliseum and Forum’s are breath-taking. It amazes me how some of the structures are still upright to this very day – if you go to Italy for one reason alone, make sure it is to see ancient Rome.

Day Five and an excursion to the far side of Rome, and into the Vatican City. Not quite so hot as previous days – typical as this was going to be an ‘inside in-the-shade day’.

St. Peter’s is a very impressive building (as you would expect), however I couldn’t help but feel upset when I found out where much of the materials had come from. It turns out that magnificent buildings like the Pantheon had been plundered to ensure the Popes new home was worthy of him. Although the precious rocks and metals were put to beautiful use, I cannot help but feel it should not have come at the expense of other (possibly equally important in their own way) buildings.

Napoli

The journey from Rome to Naples wasn’t too long and we got to see some stunning scenery on the way. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of this, but trust me when I say the Lazio and Abruzzo region is very beautiful.

Naples is the probably one of the poorest parts of Italy, and as such I was expecting a lot of homeless people and pavement traders, all trying to get my Euros from my (seemingly) rich British wallet.

Whilst it wasn’t as bad as I perhaps anticipated, it was a far cry from the clean, tourist friendly areas of Rome and Milan.

Although Naples is fairly poor and run-down, we could see how the area will, and probably is now improved. Going down to the docks area you could see how different is was every hundred metres . The contrast between luxury yachts moored up with expensive eateries and sheltered pontoons, and the pollution pumping rust-ridden, grubby tankers that looked as though they had been abandoned – was incredible. Literally, every hundred metres or so this transformation would take place.

And it is worth mentioning that I ate my best Italian meal in a small restaurant near the docks – this area is excellent for food.

Naples is on the up and is improving, but like all things, it just takes time. We decided to use Naples as a convenient base to visit some more attractive sites like Pompeii, Herculaneum, Sorrento and the Island of Capri. For this, Naples is perfect.

Day seven took us to the historic site of Pompeii.

A word to the wise, don’t go in the Summer months, it’s full of Americans looking at history. We very quickly realised that the site is open almost all year and is accessible (due to the fantastic climate) throughout this time.

However, it is still totally enjoyable if you can stand the heat and the crowds. There are almost no sheltered areas – Mount Vesuvius took care of that – so the heat was unbearable at times. The sheer vastness of the site and how it has survived (or sadly not in places) is impressive.

Pompeii needs a full (8 hour) day to enjoy and understand, and needs to be done at your own pace. We bumped into a British Archaeology Group excavating an area where the local chemist lived. It was nice to hear a British accent, and I think they felt the same. Being able to learn something as they excavated the site was special – thank you guys!

I could go into a lot of detail here, but that is not what I want to do. There are plenty of excellent sites available detailing Pompeii in all its amazement. Instead, I shall move on to another site that is just down the road from Pompeii, and suffered much the same fate as Pompeii did – Ercolano, or Herculaneum as it was known then.

Once again, set at the base of Mount Vesuvius, near the coast, Ercolano is another settlement which was buried under the ash from the eruption which dealt the same blow to Pompeii. Ercolano is lesser known as it is a smaller site and apparently less advanced than it’s neighbour – it is thought it was where the poorer residents lived.

Capri

A short ferry trip from Naples brings you to the hideaway for celebrities and the rich. The Island of Capri is small and relatively uninhabited in comparison to the hustle and bustle of Naples, and a welcome break – there’s nothing like a good sea breeze to blow away the cobwebs and freshen up.

Capri is essentially a big hill, with a port on one side, and gorgeous beaches and scenery on the other. At the top, and therefore in the middle of these two attractive places, is the town which keeps the small community in employment and stock of food.

The Summer months are definitely a booming time, with regular ferries (approx. every 15 minutes), however I can see the Winter season being very quiet and tranquil.

So with more crowds of tourists, we decided to avoid the overflowing bus and walk up the hill, through the town and down the other side to enjoy a spot of relaxing – something we hadn’t really done since arriving in Milan 8 days ago.

In hindsight, the overcrowded bus may not have been such a poor choice as the hill soon became a mountain. A short stop at the top in a cafe, and onwards and downwards to the now becoming mirage that was the sea.

The one thing that keeps you going in such circumstances is the beautiful view – something you wouldn’t get to see in a mini bus. Lots of photo opportunities and therefore excuses to stop for 5 minutes, we finally arrived at the other side. And boy it was well worth it.

Feeling relaxed and recharged after a thankfully uneventful spot of swimming and sunbathing, we headed back up the ‘mountain’ and for home.

There’s not much to report from Capri, simply because we used the area not as a museum, but as a relaxing time away from the crowds. But it did produce some good photo’s and breathtaking landscapes. The Amalfi coast at it’s best.

Firenze

60% of the world’s most important works of art are currently held in Italy, and that over half of these are in Florence. Unknown

I read that on a billboard somewhere, so how much of the statement is true I cannot confirm. What I can confirm is that Florence is mightily impressive, with a lot of art, be it important or not. It is over-flowing with culture and history and it is a city I fell in love with almost immediately after leaving the station and walking into the centre.

In the middle of the country, between Pisa on the West, and Rimini on the East, Florence is set in the centre of the famous Tuscany region. The city sits on both banks of the River Arne, and is the most romantic city of all, so far.

Navigating Florence was easy. Once again, Insight Maps did themselves proud, and the Rough Guide Map wasn’t too bad either. We quickly found our hotel, which from the outside appeared to be in disguise as a school. It turns out that the hotel takes up one (or two, can’t quite remember) floors of the building. Below is a college, and above are some offices. The owner, a rather eccentric but humble and pleasant man attended to our needs far more than any other previous. Not that we received bad service, I just felt it was worth mentioning this gentlemen knew what customer service was and wasn’t afraid to offer it, albeit in a language foreign to him.

The hotel looked out over the city, and it was possible to see the famous Duomo from our room. Unfortunately, there were a lot of building works taking place between our hotel and the city centre, so any good photo’s have been spoilt by cranes and scaffolding.
We spent three days in Florence, absorbing as much as we could. Of course there was the Duomo, The Last Supper tapestry (from which the painting derived and is now held in Milan) and many other sights such as Michelangelo’s ‘David’, and the Ponte Vecchio (bridge) were merchants built small shops on either side to sell their jewellery and other exotic items from far away lands.

Florence was great and thoroughly enjoyable. A first class city, with something for everyone. Including the most romantic sunset I have ever seen…

Venezia

Ah, Venice – the city of love.

The city of tourists more like!

The final leg of our Italy Tour brought us to Venice, the most romantic city in the world, apparently.

Arriving at Santa Lucia Station, after passing over the long causeway to get from the mainland out to the lagoon, I was pleased to feel a slight relent in the heat. The journey from Florence to Venice was long, but the air-conditioning helped. Not looking forward to leaving this luxury behind, Claire and I dived for shelter and waited before teetering out – testing the water so to speak. And being completely surrounded by the stuff, we were in the right place.

The train station is another marvel, particularly the ‘public interaction’ fountain in the main entrance.

We went straight to a restaurant to eat – I myself had one of the best pizzas I have ever tasted, and then on to find our hotel, something we hadn’t envisaged being quite has hard as it was.

Nobody told us that in order to navigate Venice, you need to have passed the Krypton Factor at least once, have a degree or doctorate in Math, be able to read minds and have a thorough knowledge of Venice’s multiple numbering systems. How anybody receives mail in Venice is beyond me.

To explain, they have not one, but two numbering systems. As in, we were looking for 2381 Via Spanielli, and we thought we had found it after much hunting. The building didn’t look much like a hotel though, but after our experience in Florence, we decided to ask anyway, just in case. The local I asked had no idea what we were talking about, so we went back out onto the main Piazza to inquire further.

Eventually, we went into a bar and asked. We were kindly informed that each house has two numbers, one for the older system, and one for the newer system. So although we had found the right number, it was not on the right property. How infuriating.

With this expert knowledge now firmly lodged in our brains, we started the search again, this time with better results.

The hotel was fantastic, with a balcony overlooking the canals (as you would expect – I do say the most obvious of things occasionally!) and a busy junction for Gondoliers, all shouting to one another as if to replace the horns on a car.

Venice is incredibly beautiful, with stunning architecture and amazing flair and passion. It seemed so dark and gothic with references to this on the buildings’ ornaments, yet Venice is also vivid with colour from the boats, and food and the personalities we encountered. It is quite extraordinary!

Venice – being the final stop – was the place to purchase gifts and souvenirs, and the Ponte Rialto is the perfect place. A bridge that crosses the Grande Canal at Rialto, it was an important trading point in the 16th and 17th Centuries, and to this day is still a bustling hybrid of activity – although now it is the tourists who are doing the trading with the shopkeepers.

We stayed only a couple of nights, before heading back to Milan for a night, and then home – from Bergamo Airport to Southampton.

Finale

Italy is bursting at the seams with activity, culture and history. And with excellent food, wine and weather – it is the perfect place to spend time relaxing and learning. All in all, the finest two weeks I have ever spent.

Footnotes

FlyBe
EuroRail
Hotels
Attractions

I still have the Rough Guide, with McDonalds straw wrapper used as a bookmark.

The Vatican