January 12, 2016

Our 24-Day Trip to Italy

Even though it dates way back to the hot summer of 2012, I’ve decided to write again about this fantastic trip to Italy because this adventure was so significant to us.

It really strengthened the bond in our small family. It was the first time in good old Europe for Lady C (my daughter) and me…our first time outside the Americas in fact. Lady N (The wife) already had been to Europe but never in any Italian cities.

We will forever cherish plenty of incredible memories from of our 24-Day trip to that old yet still modern country (Wow! 24 multiple of 12! I have to admit I didn’t really plan that one).

This trip also had great influence on me as a writer. Traveling and being exposed to foreign cultures is often inspiring. But this peculiar trek really gave me a boost to continue writing. Some pretty good new ideas also came out of it.

Later that year, I was able to finish my first book (Doux Espoirs written in French). Some of the characters and a lot of settings in my story we greatly inspired by what we lived in Italy. These experiences really gave a new flavour to my book and new life to my desire to continue writing.

So, let’s get into the thick of it!

Rome: Historical Splendor and Impressive Mayhem

After a long but surprisingly not so tiring flight from Montreal (8 hours), we landed at Leonardo da Vinci international Airport, in the suburbs of splendid Rome.  

We taught we arrived at our final destination but our adventure in Italy was only beginning. As a matter of fact, even our adventures for that day were far from over!

One of our best decisions before this trip was booking in advance a shuttle from the airport to our hotel. The airport in quite a long way from the heart of Rome and traffic in that busy and hectic city was a shock to say the least.

Before visiting Rome, I taught I had seen and experienced traffic jams. But our Montreal rush hour is trivial in comparison to what’s happening all day in the streets of the frenetic Italian capital.

Fortunately, our transit driver was very effective and used to that crazy traffic. In the end, the ride to our hotel was exhausting (more than an hour) but kind of thrilling. Thanks to our skilful chauffeur, we got there in one piece and still managed to enjoy some of the scenery.

After that experience, I can now relate to one of my favorite comic characters, Obelix who often says “Ils sont fous ces romains!” which literally translates to “They are crazy those Romans!”.

In the streets of Rome, there’s always something moving, vehicles going in all directions, oftentimes passing very close to each other: cars, small trucks, big trucks, short ones, long ones…and how can I forgive scooters, scooters everywhere! Parking spots with hundreds of these small wonders are an attraction of their own.

Because of their convenience, businessmen in three-piece suits use them, businesswomen wearing dresses use them…everybody use them, except maybe tourists. What’s also very surprising, especially the first time you see it, is when someone goes throw the main lobby of your hotel on his small yet very fast moving scooter. We are sure not used to motor vehicles entering buildings that way but many roman buildings have an interior courtyard and employees can use it to park.

So, contrary to popular belief, Romans seemed to be pretty good drivers. They drive fast yet very efficiently. They sure use their horn all the time but it’s mostly to communicate their position to other drivers. Despite high volume, traffic flow is constant and the typical drivers remain synchronized as they know when they can cross between vehicles or have to let others go throw. They also have the outmost respect for pedestrians or at least pedestrian crossings. 

In spite of that many objects moving, we did not witness any accident the whole week we were there. The way they handle all that traffic is impressive and I now can only admire that wonderfully orchestrated mayhem.      

Let’s get back to why people visit Rome in the first place. The ambiance of that wonder filled megacity, where ancient and modern architecture marvellously blend and coexist, is quite unique and charming.  

You will find luscious white marble buildings and pavement everywhere, but also magnificent bright vivid colors all around. Lots of vegetation, nice fragrant flowers, sumptuous plants and even tasteful fruits, surround both antique and contemporary structures. Even banks have great style with their tall glass doors and windows.

Take time to savour all the extraordinary historical settings. Guided tours may appear constraining but some are really worth the expense especially if you can avoid long waiting lines by booking them in advance like at the Coliseum.

Be careful what you bring to The Vatican because some items like backpacks must be left at the entrance security control. It can be an exhausting walk or ride back after an already long visit.

Several fountains scattered over the city are also a must see and are an interesting option for refreshing afternoon hikes.

I know it may sound basic but make sure you stay hydrated. Be careful where you buy water because it’s much easier to get a good bottle of wine for a fraction of the price in Italy. Even though they are rare, grocery stores are the best alternative to get not so expensive water. 

By the way, it will greatly help if you hotel is located near a nice grocery store. Find one that serves fresh deli products like Tuscan hams. They are a real treat and occasionally make a great substitute from costly restaurants. Don’t hesitate to pay a little more for a comfortable hotel. You will regret ending up in a cheap but filthy one.

Delicate flower scent coming from the interior courtyard and light perfume used by the cleaning service were quite exquisite and made our hotel that much more relaxing.

You should also plan to stay in Rome longer than most people suggest. It can be a great central point for train or bus outings. For example, you could avoid less comfortable accommodations or more expensive southern hotels by taking daily excursions. Places like the Vesuvius, Pompeii and Capri are pretty accessible from Rome. .

Southern Italy: Natural Splendor but Dangerously Chaotic

Speaking of the devil, we went to the south for the following days of our trip.

Using the sophisticated Italian train system where you must avoid the usual tourist traps, we went thru Napoli. The trains are pretty safe and effective between main cities.

We cannot say the same for the last precarious part of our journey to get to Sorrento. Without adequate control and security, local bums literally invaded the train. A lot of suspicious looking people were coming in and out at every stop. I’ll let you imagine how tightly we were holding on to our luggage. It looked more like an over-ground subway system than an actual train.

We even almost got ambushed as a strike halted the whole line for more than three hours. We were very lucky to barely escape moments before service stopped. And our 4-star southern hotel did not even give us a hint of a warming. Ironically, a day later, information about it was clearly posted at our Venice hotel, 500 miles away!

The too casual lifestyle of the south was kind of annoying. Another sample on our first night there, a Sunday, as it was really hard to simply find something to eat, almost everything was closed.  

Trapped inside our small hotel room, an old key had to be used to unlock and open the door; not really practical in case of a fire or an emergency. The only other possible option was to leave to door unlocked the whole night through. Let’s just say we felt really secure!

The dirty streets of the city were also much more hazardous as they are not designed to accommodate pedestrians and because, contrary to their roman cousins, southern drivers seemed completely stupid and reckless. They drive as fast but are much more dangerous even though traffic is relatively light. In our short five-day stay, we surprisingly witnessed more than a dozen fender benders and a couple of ugly crashes.

Finding a decently cleaned and accessible beach was also a hassle.    

I’ll end my rant here as that picturesque region of Italy still has its merits and interesting venues to offer.

For one thing, scenic views from on top of all those sharp cliffs overseeing the sea were quite remarkable. Some rudimental facilities provided great observation points to enjoy breathtaking sunsets.

Sorrento can be a splendid spot to rest on your vacation, especially if you appreciate good wine and narrow streets (note to self: stay calm, repress rant…). In addition, regional specialties can be truly appealing. For instance, renowned Italian leathers are an easy find as well as about every imaginable thing made out of lemon.

Similarly to rest of the country, restaurant servings are extravagant but lack variety aside from local sea foods. At this point in our trek, we had learned to sometimes only order two main entrees and share them between the three of us. Waiters did not always appreciate and a few even asked for a bigger tip. Sadly for their pockets, that kind of attitude immediately got me in a scrooge mood (easy boy easy!).  

A bit fed up with eating pizza and pasta, we discovered a restaurant offering some American-style dishes. One of their lunch platters included two huge beefy burgers. Our order-two-for-three trick worked out very well with those. A family of four beside us quickly ordered burgers and a pasta bowl just for the kids who seemed very hungry as parents slowly started with drinks. The whole party finally ended up feasting on only those two gargantuan meals.     
Some ancient historical sites like Pompeii are inevitable and merit your full attention. Take time to plan a well organized visit over there.

Special mention to bus and truck drivers as they come within inches of each other when they cross on the winding mountain roads. Some roman blood must flow in their veins as they appear skilful and use their horn a lot to successfully communicate while they precisely maneuver their imposing transport vehicles.

Florence the Beautiful

After our southern adventures, we were glad to head back up north on a safer train route. We would not be disappointed by our next destination: Florence or Firenze as proud locals would say. 

Everything about this incredible Renaissance city destined for greatness seems designed with the modern tourist in mind. With thousands of attractions, practical facilities and masterpieces at almost every street corner, Florence is like a vast outdoor museum. A splendid museum!

Many streets are closed to traffic and can accommodate a multitude of pedestrians. That way, most sites are easily accessible by foot or using the effective bus transport system. Sightseeing by nonchalantly walking through the magnificent avenues of Florence can be a real pleasure.   

Being the capital and focal point of Tuscany, Florence proposes delightful delicacies like world renowned wines, olive oils, cheeses as well as tasty deli products. Their famous gelato instantly conquered Lady C.

As a strange use of space, our hotel room spread over two floors. Lady C gave us a good scare as she oddly slipped and scraped her back all the way down the in-room stairway. Fortunately, some ice and motherly love quickly got her feeling better.

The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore was an unforgettable visit. Known as The Duomo (The dome), that architectural wonder has no equal. Our legs certainly remembered the 463 step climb for the next couple days; still well worth the effort.

Florence was our favourite city in Italy and we certainly wish we could have stayed there longer.

On top of everything else that great city has to offer, an elaborate bus and train system allows you to swiftly get to nearby sites and attractions. It gave us the opportunity to visit pleasant sites in the Tuscany countryside like a Chianti winery.

But one stop was even more memorable: the city of Siena. Siena has a very intriguing history and is uniquely set on three hills. The construction of its main cathedral was delayed for decades by a devastating plague. That tragedy nearly extinguished its one time 50,000 population. Truly overwhelming artwork is exposed throughout several churches in the city.    

Siena is also famous for The Palio, a traditional medieval horse race run around the Piazza del Campo. Each year, the city is decorated with flags bearing the winning Contrade (neighbourhood) colours.

I have a funny anecdote on the Italian notion of time. During the lunch break, our guide told us that it was a five-minute walk to our next rendezvous point. It practically took us 30 minutes to get there so almost everyone was late. When asked about it, our friendly guide simply replied that it was “5 Italian minutes”.  

Venice the Watery

Another train and boat ride got us to Venice, our last stop.

We had some difficulty to find our hotel as contrary to usual and logical customs, addresses are attributed in chronological order in each quarter of Venice. So number 255 won’t necessarily be close to number 257 or 256. 

Before going to Venice, we certainly considered it as one main item on our travel bucker list. So we were glad to check it off but were kind of disappointed by that so popular city. You sure have to visit it once but staying more than a couple days may be a waste of your time.

Tourism is the main economic activity of that city and people over there sure try hard to take advantage of every opportunity to exploit tourists. That’s a shame!

Everything seemed too expensive in Venice and some basic necessities were complicated to come by.

There’s stores everywhere is Venice, thousands of them. When you have seen a couple different ones, you probably have seen then all as they are almost identical. Looks like a repetition of the same three stores over and over. As my girls were in a shopping mood, that lack of variety kind of added to my hardship.

One small lonely lacework shop was the exception that confirmed the rule. 

We still managed to find some interesting pieces and our budget allowed us a couple of extravagancies.

We could not resist some genuine glass artwork and jewellery as well as typical Venetian masks. Yet we had to be extra careful to avoid cheap Made in China imitations.

Our boat expedition to the islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello was entertaining. The glass shops of Murano were especially impressive. The vivid colours of Burano were also amusing.

After 5 days in Venice, we were getting bored and probably a bit homesick. Maybe it’s an obvious warning sign when you start to really appreciate Mr Bean…speaking Italian! So we gladding headed back to Canada.

Lady C surely enjoyed the thrilling taxi-boat ride to the airport where we got a final taste of Italian carelessness. As customary for them, Italians airport employees overbooked the flight and the airport waiting area was suffocating as space was quite limited. So it appeared to take forever before we could leave.

After a long traveling day, we finally got home where we could take pleasure in simple things that we take for granted like eggs and orange juice for breakfast, drinking fresh water and taking a relaxing warm shower.

In the end, even if we were a little tired, our adventure to Italy had been thrilling and provided us with memories that we will cherish for a long time. We particularly recommend our friends a long visit to our favourite Italians cities: Florence and Rome.

Photos by me

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