This was a whirlwind tour of Italy taking into the main cities with my parents in 2012 and was originally published on travelpod, a now defunct travel blog site.
Trip: 01 Apr to 16 Apr 2012
Venice Introduction – Venice, Veneto, Italy (1 Apr 2012)
Having met mum and dad at Venice airport, we proceeded to Venice using the Alilaguna; which is the boat that takes you from the airport to Piazza San Marco; saving the hassle of lugging the luggage through most of the streets of Venice. It also offers one of the nicest views of Venice from the water.
The only thing I forgot to check was the length of the journey; it seems does a tour of all the islands before finally ending up in Piazza San Marco, just under 1.5 hours! There are no outside seats and the windows don’t seem to have been cleaned for a good few years, but in my opinion is still worth the best way to arrive into Venice.
The legendary high prices of Venice were evident as soon as we found some lunch, a hole in the wall café where the pasta and “sandwich” cost 20 EUR each! The pasta was delicious, a duck ragu with ribbons of pasta; and the “sandwich” was a combination of Italian meats, pickled mushrooms and rocket; which definitely hit the spot!
Burano and Murano Islands – Veneto, Italy (2 Apr 2012)
After a tour of Venice’s back alleys and the help of a kind local, we managed to find our way to Fondamenta Nuove for the ferry ride to Burano; where the locals sat in the middle of the ferry reading the paper or gossiping and the tourists happily snapped pictures by the windows.
Burano itself is a lovely fishing village, also famous for its lace. The handmade lace put the prices up to 900 EUR for a shirt!The glass and mask souvenirs seemed to be cheaper than Venice or Murano. The one thing that was the same price as Venice was the toilets, 1.50 EUR a visit….Outrageous!
Murano seemed to be filled with glass shops, glass factories; which catered to a variety of budgets, from my modest pair of earrings to sculptures and chandeliers costing up to 10,000 EUR – I think they include shipping for that price, I forgot to ask though!
The Peggy Guggenheim museum was our next stop, welll worth a visit, even for a
non-lover of Modern Art like me and one of the reasons is that it is in an old Palazzo (Palace) on the Grand Canal and the other is the sculpture garden. Paintings include ones from Pollock, Dali and Kadinsky to name but a few…. Look out for the grave of Peggy Guggenheim who is buried in the garden with her dogs.
Venice Museums – Venice, Veneto, Italy (3 Apr 2012)
A relatively new museum, Museo Palazzo Grimani had a temporary exhibition of Canaletto’s sketches, etchings and some paintings; the museum is part of Galleria dell’ Accademia. It was amazing to see his sketches which I had never seen before and how he then used the same images in etchings and paintings, the Palazzo also has a nice ceiling fresco and they let you take pictures.
Ca’ d’Oro (or Palazzo Santa Sofia); is a situated on the Grand Canal dating back to the 15th Century and is worth a visit, if only for the chance look out at life on the Grand Canal – gondolas, barges not to mention the vaporettos, and fellow tourists taking pictures of you!
We cracked the value jackpot for lunch and found All’Arco, a bar serving Italian tapas; which was recommended in the Lonely Planet, trip advisor and at 30 EUR for the three of us; it was worth the 20 minute walk! Hope that the picture does it justice!
A visit to Venice is not complete without a concert performed in 18th Century costumes, we saw a concert of opera arias at Scuola Grande di San Teodoro; a fitting end to a action packed Venetian experience.
Milan and La Scala – Milan, Lombardy, Italy (4 Apr 2012)
We arrived in Milan at around lunchtime and made our way to the Duomo di Milano for a look around and found an Italian “fast food” place near the business district – Al Cantinone which had hearty home style Italian food and catered to time pressed office workers. Lunch selection was made with a combination of pointing, nods and smiles to the servers; our only mistake was not to follow the locals and order a glass of wine with lunch!
A walk through Victoria Emmanuel Gallery was an interesting experience, being surrounded by most of the big Italian brands, smart restaurants and McDonalds! The Duomo di Milano was a beautiful building filled with stained glass, beautiful marble floors and paintings.
No trip to Milan would be complete without a trip to La Scala. After refusing to pay 150 EUR a ticket, we were told by the box office to go back and queue at 6pm. Upon arriving at 5.45, I was greeted by a crowd of people, all with orange tickets with numbers in their hand. Not being able to find anyone who spoke English, I had almost given up hope of seeing anything, when an Italian guy came up to me and gave me his ticket – No. 85. They were calling out the numbers and given my lack of Italian, I had to keep an eagle eye on everyone around me and guessed when 85 was called. Somehow I managed to persuade them that although I only had one queue ticket, I should be allowed to buy 3 tickets – luckily it worked! From what I could gather, you need to obtain a queue ticket; which for popular operas and ballets seem to start at 1 pm and then you have to come back at 6 pm to actually buy your ticket!
Having found our seats (second highest gallery and stage right), we were looking forward to hearing the great acoustics and singing. When the curtains opened to reveal an almost bare stage, I had this funny feeling that it might not be quite what we expected. True enough, it turned out to be a ballet, L’Altra Meta del Cielo (The other half of the sky); choreographed by Martha Clarke. It was great to be able to see a performance at La Scala, even if we saw all of it standing up (as our seats had quite a limited view); still at 10 EUR each there wasn’t much we could complain about.
Gelato and torrential rain in Verona – Verona, Veneto, Italy (5 Apr 2012)
We ventured to Verona on a day trip to see the town made famous by Romeo and Juliet. Juliet’s house, which is almost in the middle of Verona, was overrun with tourists from all corners of the world – so after a few pictures we kept exploring. Unfortunately, while we were there the amphitheatre or Arena had quite restricted access as they are preparing for the Opera season; so we gave them a miss too.
We managed to find lunch just by the river and I had a horse meat pizza, it seemed to have been smoked and shredded, resulting in quite a strong flavour; not one for the faint hearted! Castelvecchio Museum was next on the list, which had a good collection of sculpture, statues, painting; the views back into Verona were lovely.
The highlight of Verona was Gelateria Savoia, which is just near the Arena. As this was my 3rd trip to Verona, I knew exactly where I was going! The dark chocolate was a favourite and we went back for seconds!
Suddenly the torrential rain started and we were forced to take shelter in the shops; where we stumbled on a new concept -“Clothes by the kilo”. Each item has a tag with a number, you weigh the item on scales and put the number and you are then told how much it costs. The best way to describe the scene is a cross between TK Maxx (TJ Maxx in the US) and the fresh fruit aisle of the supermarket. It didn’t seem to be much cheaper than other shops, as they claimed to be designer.
Highlights of Milan – Milan, Lombardy, Italy (6 Apr 2012)
One of the highlights of Milan is Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. Luckily, this time I had done my homework and found that the easiest way was to book a half day city tour which included entry into Santa Maria della Grazie where the Last Supper is on the wall of the refectory.
The city tour included a visit into the museum and the salons of La Scala and the museum; which given that we were in the cheap seats the night and missed all the grandeur was great. After a quick bus tour of the city and a brief stop at Castello Sforeszo, we found ourselves outside the monastery. Pre-buying the ticket is not the only challenging part of the visit, you are given 15 minute slots to enter in groups of 25; where you have to pass through a series of controlled doors before you are allowed into the room of the fresco. Once there, there are no photos allowed – I followed the rules so the picture on the blog is from wiki. Needless to say, you have to remain behind a rope but you are able to study the detail of the fresco and it is a real masterpiece. After queuing in London for the Leonardo exhibition from 6 am in January, it was definitely easier and warmer!
Castello Sforzesco – was a surprise as it was free when I went and had an impressive art collection; among which was Michelango’s unfinished last sculpture – Rondanini Pieta; there was also other smaller museums of ancient art, furniture, Egyptian artifacts and musical instruments. Pinacoteca di Brera (“Brera Art Gallery”) is one of Milan’s top art galleries and has a amazing collection of Italian art, with masterpieces from Caravaggio, Tintoretto and Raphael to name a few.
Next stop was the shopping streets of Via della Spigna and Via Monte Napoleone; where we saw quite a few fellow tourists buying up big and a few of the locals walking their dogs while window shopping – only in Milan!
Dinner consisted of “Aperitivo”, which is offered in many of the Milanese bars; you buy a drink and can help yourself to the food. Mostly cold meats, salads and pasta – it was one of the best value meals (if you are happy with plastic cutlery and plates!)
Lake Como & Bellagio – Como, Lombardy, Italy (7 Apr 2012)
After an hour train ride from Milan, we arrived at Como San Giovanni, a short walk from the Lake Como ferry terminal. The ferry ride to Bellagio took just under 2 hours, an all stops boat ride; which provided ample opportunity to gawk at the mansions by the lake and debate about which would be the best spot on the lake if we won the lottery. The rest of the boat seemed to be doing the same and unfortunately, no one famous was spotted – maybe next time.
Bellagio is a lovely town with lots of staircases, hidden shops and great views from the top of the hill and by the lake. We were also caught in torrential rain and had to seek shelter under an awning of a souvenir shop – a useful distraction in wet weather.
We had dinner back in Milan, at a place called “My Kitchen”, a neighborhood Italian that was run by Chinese and filled with a mixture of locals and tourists – a surreal experience ordering dinner in Italy using English and then drinks in Mandarin.
Florence museums – Florence, Tuscany, Italy (8 Apr 2012)
The rain followed us from Lake Como and when we started to explore Florence, it was bucketing down…. time to head for a museum!
Unfortunately there were quite a few others who had the same idea, luckily the queue was inside courtyard. Palazzo Vecchio – is the old Town Hall of Florence and today is the home of the Mayor, the town council and a museum. The rooms of the museum especially Salone dei Cinquecento are quite impressive and my favourite was the room with the maps.
After a 45 minute wait (under blue skies this time) we managed to get into Galleria Accademia (Gallery of the Accademia di Belle Arti) – to see Michaelangelo’s David, among other masterpieces. They certainly have stepped up security since I was last here in the 1990’s with a glass partition and no the photo rule was strictly enforced throughout the gallery. The crowds were only interested in one thing: David. I really liked Michaelangelo’s four unfinished pieces – The prisoners which you were able to look at quite closely. The pictures I have have been downloaded from wiki, as I obeyed the rules and didn’t sneak a picture in!
Uffizi Gallery – Florence, Tuscany, Italy (9 Apr 2012)
After paying an extra 4 EUR the day before, we managed to save ourselves some time by not queuing for the Uffizi gallery (according to discussions with other tourists the day before it was over 2 hours). The Uffizi was as amazing as I remembered, with Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, Michelangelo’s Tondo Doni and Raffaello’s Madonna del Cardellino among my favourites. Photos are from wikipedia as there were no photos allowed in the gallery.
The Uffizi has recently added a wing of Dutch and other European masters and there is another extension currently being built. While we were there, an exhibition of tapestries was also on – with one they showed the back of the tapestry; where the colours are still incredibly vivid; how amazing they must have looked when they were new.
Finding a gelato in Florence is very easy, finding one that you have to go back to a little harder! My favourite is Caffe Perseo on Piazza della Signoria, which is the statue of David and Castle Vecchio is. The gelato is more than the other gelateria in central Florence but has big scoops and is yummy; the dark chocolate was again a favourite!
Palazzo Davanzanti & San Lorenzo – Florence, Tuscany, Italy (10 Apr 2012)
I visited Palazzo Davanzanti is a Florence plazzo with some old frescos and rooms; a more modest Palazzo then say Palazzo Vecchio; some of the rooms had painted frescos with the room with the parrots being the most vivid. Unfortunately, once again no pictures; this time I managed to sneak one in of the courtyard.
We spent the afternoon wandering through the leather market at San Lorenzo, where the stall holders seemed to be an interesting mix of Italian, Indians and a few chinese; we ended up purchasing at the stall run by Chinese; where bargaining in Mandarin seem to make the discount better!
Cinque Terre, Cinque Terre, Italian Riviera, Italy (11 Apr 2012)
Given the distances and the public transport situation, we did a day tour of Cinque Terre from Florence and ending up sharing the tour and mini van with an American family from California. I had previously spent 2 days in Cinque Terre so was looking forward to retracing some of my steps.
This time, I managed to see the wine terraces close-up; where the vines are grown with the help of bamboo sticks maximising the sun exposure. Riomaggiore, the eastern most town was our first stop; with just enough time for a few quick photos. The walk from Riomaggiore to Manarola is called the Lovers Walk, and is a beautiful and easy walk along the cliff. At Manarola, after a few more quick pictures we were straight onto the train to Vernazza. In true Italian style, the train was about 30 minutes late; which was cutting into not only valuable sightseeing but lunchtime!
When I arrived in Vernazza, I barely recognised the town; there were no longer any shops from the train station down to the waterfront. It was building site, with saws going and pumps going on in the background. What I remember as souvenir, art shops and cafes was completely gone and the only shop open was the pharmacy. The reason for this was the flood of 25th October 2011 which destroyed the town and killed 3 people. We had arrived just a few days after they had started to welcome tourists again.
We had a great lunch at Gambero Rosso which was on the seafront, a feast of fried anchovies and seafood washed down with some Cinque Terre wine. The restaurant showed pictures of their restaurant after the flood where the mud came up to the cookers.
Corniglia was our next stop and as we were on a tour were spared the 382 steps up to the town; which I did the last time in the middle of an very warm August day! Corniglia and the scenic drive above the town were beautiful especially as it had stopped raining and the sea now had quite a few different colours visible. Although we didn’t quite make it to Monterosso al Mare, it was a good trip.
Tuscany in a Day – Sienna, San Gimignano and Pisa Tuscany, Italy (12 Apr 2012)
How can one cover Tuscany in One Day? Easy – do a coach tour where all you have to do is get on and off the bus!
We started early from Florence and had a guided walking tour of Siena; historically Florence and Siena were great rivals and were often at war with each other; today they are both listed in the UNESCO World Heritage list. One of the main sights in the city is Piazza del Campo – the main square where twice a year 10 horses (each representing a different district in the city) and their bare backed riders; ride 3 times around the square at great speed and often underhanded tactics. The winner is the horse which crosses the line first, regardless on whether it has a rider or not! The DVD we saw looks like a crazy day and a great party for the winning district.
The other main sight is the Duomo, the cathedral which was started in 1215 and continued into the 14th century. The most amazing sight is the inlaid marble floor with 56 panels, they are stunning and quite unlike other cathedrals. I saw most of they uncovered when I was last in Siena and its well worth the cathedral entry price!
As part of the tour, we were provided lunch at Fattoria Poggio Alloro set in the hills around San Gimignano; which produces its own wine, pasta, meat and also has rooms to stay. Lunch was delicious with local cheese, pasta and ragu and biscotti to finish off. All of this was accompanied by four different wines! A white – Vernaccia, a chianti, a super tuscan and a vin santo to finish off! We then had a tour of the wine vats and barrels as well as the farm. Certainly a memorable meal!
After a drive through the famed chanti countryside we arrived at San Gimignano; where the first stop was Gelateria di Piazza – which is supposed to be the best ice cream in the world. It was great, with interesting flavours of saffron and Vernaccia sorbet among the ones that we tried. It’s impossible to miss this place, as it is the only shop with a queue out into the square. Make sure that you arrive hungry!
We arrived into Pisa late in the afternoon; which was the perfect time to take stupid holding up the tower pictures – hope that you like my effort! Although I didn’t climb the tower on this occasion, if you are in Pisa you definitely should and make sure that you book before. Although the angle of the lean doesn’t look too much from the ground below, it is certainly disorientating when you are climbing the tower. The views from the top are amazing and let’s be honest – what was the last building that you climbed that leaned?
Pisa itself has a University and some palazzo’s by the river which is about all we saw from the small tourist train as we did a 20 minute circuit of the town.
Once we arrived back into Florence we had what can only be described as one of the best value dinners in Italy – 13EUR which included a starter, main, a plate of vegetables, a glass of wine and bottled water. At this price, there is a limited menu which changes on a daily basis and although the plates are quite small the whole meal is filling! As to its location ….. all I will say is that it is a 5 minute walk from Florence’s main station!
Trattoria Mario and Fiesole – Fiesole, Tuscany, Italy (13 Apr 2012)
Central Market was a great market where the locals did their shopping, so there was the fresh fruit and vegetables, cured meats and lots of pasta. I managed to try salt infused with truffle, which smelt like, well truffles! Looking forward to trying it out.
Our next stop was Trattoria Mario (in the same square as the Central Market), which was recommended by the Lonely Planet and other guide books, opened in 1953, it is a Florentine institution. We arrived at 11.45 and the place was about half full, just before 12, all tables were full and then service started. The food was really good and really quick; as we were there on a Friday we all had fish. Mario’s is only open for lunch and make sure you are early.
Fiesole is a town in the hills above Florence, although it is on the hop on hop off tour; it felt much quieter than Florence. The town provides great views of Florence, there is also a archaeological museum – which we missed.
Termini and truffles – Rome, Lazio, Italy (14 Apr 2012)
After arriving in Rome in another bout of torrential rain, we managed to find our hotel – it was past what seem to be shop after shop of Chinese wholesalers of jewelery and clothes; which is not what you expect when you arrive in Rome!
To save time and money, we were in the process of buying 2 weekly travel cards from the Metro machines at Termini, when suddenly it all went wrong! The machine rejected both my credit cards and a 50 EUR note; between us we managed to find the exact change of 32 EUR and then we waited for the tickets to come out…… nothing did…… We managed to spot a couple of guys lurking around the ticket machine and asked for help, we were told to go to the ticket office or call the number on the panel…. still no ticket….. So there we were, 32 EUR poorer and still no ticket, getting more annoyed and frustrated by the minute.
A couple then came up to us and ask if they could help us. The next 45 minutes consisted of Simone and mum going to the various ticket offices in Termini on the different platforms, calling phone lines which directed you to the internet and arguing with very unhelpful staff; in the meantime, Lucia, dad and I were standing in front of the ticket machine; explaining patiently in either Italian or English that the ticket machine was broken and we were in the process of trying to get our money back!With Simone and Lucia’s help we managed to locate and complete a refund form and submit it to the ticket office. Needless to say, we haven’t seen a refund.
The best thing about this experience was meeting Simone and Lucia; who kept apologizing for the failures of Italian system in Mandarin – as it turned out they both spent 6 years in Beijing and Hong Kong as Simone works for the Italian foreign office. They also provided advice on a great gelato place which mum and dad tried and loved.
After such an eventful ticket purchase, we managed to make our way to Campo de Fiori for the some shopping – based on previous experience there was a truffle stall here and we managed to negotiate a good discount with the various truffle oils, truffle spreads that we brought. They let you taste before you buy too and it closes at 3 pm; as the only stand at the market, it is impossible to miss. While you are there, have lunch at Caffe Maranega which is close by; the seafood pasta was great! We then took in some of the main sights of Piazza Navona, Pantheon, Trevi fountain and the Spanish steps.
The Golden Age of Rome – Rome, Lazio, Italy (15 Apr 2012)
One of the great pleasures of being in Rome is being to amble along its historic streets, marvel at the different styles of architecture and when you least expect it find a statue or Chinese ballroom dancing lessons in a park! The long and rich history is evident when you are walking in what is a lovely park on the way to the Colosseum and find that the path that you are walking on was part of a large landscaped portico villa and built by Emperor Nero after the great fire in 64 AD (Domus Aurea).
When we arrived at the Colosseum, it was packed, it seemed that every tourist in Rome was there at the same time. In order to avoid the long queue, we were easily persuaded to join a guided tour of the Colosseum and Palatine Hill; for which there was to be a minimal queue. A word of advice make sure you know which is your guide and group as a split second off the ball results in a lost group!
The tour of the Colosseum was quite good, with a overview of the construction, history and uses and clarification of what was historical fact and Hollywood interpretation. What struck me when I was in was the sheer size of the complex, the arches, doorways and holding cells; which is not always easy to grasp when you just see a picture of the exterior.
When we met for the afternoon tour of the Palatine Hill, there seemed to be over 100 people on the same tour – luckily the group was split and as people get bored it turned out to be quite manageable. The scale of the buildings of ancient Rome started to become clearer after walking through the Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum, although I had difficulty remembering which emperor was which and who built what!
After crossing Rome in an area close to Via Condotti, the Spanish Steps we finally arrived at Gelateria Giolitti, one of Rome’s famous gelateria. The crowds of gelato eating students outside and the queues inside were a sure sign we were at the right place; our favourite flavours were the dark chocolate and pistachio; definitely worth a visit if you are in Rome.
Vatican Museums – Rome, Lazio, Italy (14 Apr 2012)
We started the day at Basilica of St. John Lateran, is the cathedral church of the Diocese of Rome and the official ecclesiastical seat of the Bishop of Rome, who the Pope. Although not as impressive as St Peter’s it was still large in scale and decoration.
Next stop was the Vatican Museums, where we paid a bit extra for tickets on the internet and avoided the long queues; definitely worth the few extra euros! The Vatican museums are extensive and impressive; numerous sculpture galleries from ancient Greece to Rodin, old maps of Italy and the world; not to mention religious paintings from medieval to contemporary.
Among my favourite areas of the museum was the Raphael rooms; where the detail was impressive and the condition of the frescos incredible as they were painted from 1503 to the 1520s. The gallery of maps which has painted maps of Italy from the late 1500’s.
The main attraction of the Vatican museums is of course, Michelangelo’s the Sistine Chapel with both the ceiling and Last Judgment fresco. Although the chapel is supposed to be silent, the chapel is packed; almost as crowded as the tube at peak hour with the attendants shouting “no photo” in Italian and English every few minutes. Even without the help of my camera’s zoom, the detail and colours are amazing and despite the crush worth braving the crowd to take it in.
And with that, my Jewels of Italy trip concluded; while mum and dad spent a few more days exploring other sights around Rome and Pompeii. I will have to console myself with my ever expanding fridge magnet collection and truffle products till my next Italian adventure!