I wanted to share with you a little bit about a trip I took to Italy last spring. The sights, experiences and musings of an all too brief vacation in three parts, the first of which concerns…
Busy, beautiful, very open (geographically). I didn’t feel hemmed in here at all as I do in some major cities, and as I did in Florence and Venice. Crossing streets is really for the fearless or suicidal–you must follow the locals and see when they cross and stick closely behind them! The art and the ancient architecture are of course impressive and beautiful but I was filled with such a sense of sadness and horror while visiting the Colosseum. It feels like visiting a Holocaust museum. So many people love these beautiful old ruins but it’s hard to forget the savagery they were witness to. The food was good, but surprisingly, I’ve had much better at home, and with infinitely better customer service. I hate to say it, but in general, Italy was very rude to me. The nicest, most helpful and friendliest people hands down were other tourists.
Florence: Oh lord, it was such an adventure coming into town in the middle of the night. I had a map but it was nearly useless as the city maps in Italy don’t correspond exactly to the streets’ locations and names. In general, street names and addresses aren’t well marked. Best to have a hand-held GPS if you aren’t great at map reading and don’t have an innate sense of direction. Once daylight came, I was fine as I could read markings and got my compass bearings with the sun and learned landmarks. The art and architecture, again, will blow your mind. One of the highlights of my time in Italy was when I ventured outside the city for a Tuscan wine tour. The chiantis and olive oils we had were amazing and the lunch break in the middle of our trip at a small family owned restaurant was the best food I ate my entire time in Italy. I (unknowingly) had cow tongue and really enjoyed it. Again, I met a lovely couple of Americans on the tour and they recommended coming back to Italy and just spending some time away from the cities in the coastal villages of Cinque Terre. Well, more ideas for the next trip.
Venice: Again, got into town in the middle of the night and this time with no map at all. Just an address and a weird sort of description of how to find the tiny hotel I was staying in taken from a fellow traveler on TripAdvisor. I met some charming French and French Canadian tourists who helped me find the right Vaporetto line to get to Rialto Bridge. From there, I followed the directions as best I could and wandered a bit for about 20 minutes. During my peregrinations, I was struck by how eerily quiet it was. After turning along several streets and cutting across lots of little squares, I heard the welcome and unmistakable noises of the only bar open in that section of town. They, unfortunately, had no idea how to direct me to my hotel. I miraculously found a few more little signs and landmarks and made it down a suffocatingly small alley which ran past the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo. Never have I experienced a city with streets so incredibly narrow. I could put out my arms and touch the buildings on either side. Again, rude ass bitches will not move aside even though you have baggage to carry. In addition, you will kick yourself with wet feet if you forget your wellies and raincoat! Be sure to change into them before you have to walk around town. Just expect there to be flooding and know that you will get wet. There was some deeper flooding down a few of the streets and platform walkways were erected on metal frames with plywood. The wonderful thing about Venice was that it was easy to wander and get lost, then keep walking to find myself back where I started or at least where I had been before. When daylight hit, I wandered about 5-10 minutes and found myself smack in the Piazza San Marco. Easy as pie.
If you’re into walking tours, download the Rick Steves audio tours. They are pretty well-paced, comprehensive, and well-recorded, in addition to being completely free. On that note, budget a lot more than you think you’ll need for food and shopping. In general, you are going to spend serious bank. Probably more than locals due to some shady business practices, and also just because, and I hate to say it, the cities seem to be “money grubbing” in general. Consumer goods are waaaaay over priced in many places, and restaurant food costs significantly more if you want to sit at a table versus standing to eat at a counter (so awkward and uncomfortable, especially for a klutz like myself). There are also some additional charges such as a “table cloth” charge if you are sitting at a table. In Rome, I was charged 20 euro (about $27) to sit and eat a gelato and drink a coffee. I was exhausted from walking so there was no way I was going to stand any longer but jeez, that’s really a bit much. Even New York City and London aren’t that bad. Another warning: don’t go too photo crazy. Just look. I mean really look. Soak it in and experience the locations. And seriously, don’t be the doofus with your iPad in front of your face photographing/video recording the whole trip. Take a few pics for memories, but there are so many beautiful, professional photos taken of any landmark or art that you’re better off downloading/buying those prints and making an album or scrapbook than trying to capture everything.
Now a list of some of the key sites and activities I really enjoyed:
Rome – Palatine Hill, Forum, and Colosseum (in that order). Get your tickets online beforehand or up at the Palatine Hill so you don’t have to wait on lines at the Colosseum. Capitoline Hill, Piazza Venezia, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City and Sistine Chapel (we got up late and caught the tail end of the new Pope’s Easter benediction. The crowds were quite a sight.), Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Piazza della Minerva, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, The Keats-Shelley House (right by the Spanish Steps), Piazza del Popolo, the Villa Borghese gardens and Zoological gardens (didn’t get in to see the Borghese Gallery), National Museum of Rome, the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art (which even has a room entitled “Is it art?”).
Really, who makes a floor out of mirrors? That’s just asking for trouble.
Florence – Uffizi Gallery, Gallery of the Academy (really, it’s nothing you haven’t already seen at the Uffizi, but you’re only going there for David, who is hands down the most impressive sculpture I’ve ever seen. I will say though that the room containing unfinished sculptures is also a fascinating insight into his artistic process), Museo Galileo (for the science and math buffs among us), Palazzo Medici Riccardi which had an exhibit called “The Dalí Universe in Florence,” Basilica de Santa Maria del Fiore (il Duomo), Ponte Vecchio, and the Piazza dell Mercato.
Venice – just wander all over. You will be surprised and impressed. I enjoyed listening to the Interpreti Veneziani doing the works of Vivaldi. Also, as expensive as shopping abroad was, I found the best stuff at the best prices in Venice. Kinda opposite to what every travel guide said. This was the only place I didn’t feel like I got totally fleeced. Of course, don’t eat or drink anything at a location along the Piazza San Marco before you know the price. You are asking for it.
A bit of an aside: I always found it funny that there are alternative names for geographical locations. There’s a name for it made up by every other language and then there’s the name that the residents of said country call it themselves. Why make up new names for countries and their cities? By the way, Chinese don’t call it China. They call it something like “zhong guo-ah ” meaning “Middle Kingdom.” I’d be interested to do an etymological research study on how we got to calling it China.