Two weeks touring Italy with Claire. First holiday organised and paid for as an adult. Southampton to Milan, Rome & Vatican, Naples & Capri, Florence, Venice, Milan, Southampton. Trained it all the way round.

The Vatican

Preparation

The Italian Tour was something that I have wanted to do for a long time, and 2003 seemed like a good year to go ahead with it. I wanted to tour Italy and take it all in – Milan, Rome, Naples, Florence and Venice. I also wanted to go with someone to share the experience with.

After much discussion, and deciding that Thailand was too costly at the time, Claire and I decided to organise the tour and go six months later in the Summer.

We looked around the travel agents for a couple of weeks, but we soon realised that they didn’t offer what we wanted. In this time, we found some cheap flights to Milan with FlyBE from Southampton Airport. At Ł75.00 per person return, we couldn’t afford to miss this opportunity, but it would mean doing the hotels independently as well, as High Street travel agents only seem to deal with ‘packages’.

So the flights were booked in March, and everything was going well. However, we soon realised that the travelling there was the easy bit. With having success using the internet, we tried organising the hotels online as well. But five cities in two weeks was proving a logistical nightmare, and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves knocking at STA Travels’ door!

In all honesty, I don’t know why we left it so long to talk to them!? They were happy to organise the hotels and didn’t mind us not flying with them. The agents there understood our criteria and did a fantastic job. They even arranged our EuroRail Pass to enable us cheaper travel within Italy.

All in all, the tour fell in to a budget of about Ł600.00 (flights, hotel and internal travel), which isn’t bad when you consider that we went at peak Summer time of late July for two weeks, and flew from Southampton, rather than Heathrow or Gatwick. We spent approximately a further Ł400.00 in the two weeks on food and luxuries and will never forget the magical time we spent in Italy.

Stop One: Milan

Arriving at Bergamo airport, just North of Milan, we got a coach down to the city centre where the Hotel Amadeus (nice name!) was ready for us. Not sure of what to expect from our accommodation, I was happy with the room, even though it appeared they made an error with the bed and gave us a twin rather than the requested double. Not being too confident with the Italian Language, we decided that as we were only staying a couple of nights we would ignore this oversight and enjoy the financial and fashion capital of Italy.

We embarked on a quick tour of the city and tried to acclimatise ourselves to the soaring heat before we got ready for the long journey South to Rome.

Whilst here we visited the Milano Duomo, the cities cathedral proudly sitting in the centre of the city, and the worlds largest (and most Gothic) basillica. With full access to the highest steeple, the views of the city were amazing. Unless (like me) you’re not to keen on heights!

Stop Two: Rome

Arriving in Rome on the most luxurious train ride I have ever taken, 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 locals 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.

Day Three saw us orientate ourselves with the city. We saw the Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon, as well as eat some Gelati (ice cream) – quite possibly the best in the entire world.

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, located off the beaten track down a side street. The monastery was once located elsewhere, but moved in 1624 to its present location. In order to be respectful to the deceased monks buried in the grounds, the new inhabitants adorned the interior chambers with the remains. 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 plaque underneath saying “One day we were like you, and one day you will be like us!”

Another story relating to the monastery is the creation of the word cappuccino and its association with coffee. The monks used to where brown gowns, with white hats. Much like the colour of a creamy coffee. Although there are lots of stories relating to cappuccino, so I’m not completely convinced this is 100% accurate.

Day Four took us to the 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.
The 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 the Forums.

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 Pope’s new home was worthy of him. Although the precious rocks and metals were put to beautiful use, I can’t help but feel it should not have come at the expense of other (possibly equally important in their own way) buildings.

Stop Three: 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 Euro’s 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.

Stop Four: Island of 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.

Stop Five: Firenze
It is said that, “60% of the worlds most important works of art are currently held in Italy, and that over half of these are in Florence”.
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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…

Stop Six: Venezia
Ah, Venice – the city of love.

The city of tourists more like!

The final leg of our Italy Tour brings 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 to the ‘islands’, I was pleased to feel a slight relent in the heat. The trip 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.

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

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.

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, (or maybe Statistics) be able to read minds and have a thorough knowledge of Venice’s numbering system. 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 had no idea what we were talking about, so we went back out onto the main Piazza to enquire 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 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.

All in all, the finest two weeks I have ever spent.

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.

To view the photos, click here.