“Italy, and the spring and first love all together should suffice to make the gloomiest person happy.” – Bertrand Russel
So said Bertrand Russel and years hence it still rings true. Italy is enchanting. Traveling through it is an experience like no other. I travelled to Italy for 12 days with my parents, brother and husband recently. We were a motley crew of five, each very different from the other and yet thrown together by the way of family and now an impending longish vacation.
Italy – Many reasons, one destination
We chose Italy for many reasons. We all love art and history to varying degrees. Whether the stories of the Roman might, or the prowess of the Medici or the flourish of the Renaissance, each of us had favorites in the pages if Italian history – painters we had loved, sculptors we had admired and parts of Christian history that we found fascinating. Also, we love to eat and Italy is one of the best places you should visit if good food ticks your happy hormones.
Now, in retrospect, possibly Italy is not the best choice if you are looking at a relaxed slow paced vacation (unless you have months to spare and take everything in at a pace of your liking). The country is loaded with Natural beauty, architectural marvels, wonders of the ancient world, galleries brimming with masterpieces of Art and Sculpture and a long list of places where you must eat. So, if your goal is to reach a place and not move an inch in Italy you could pick Sorrento, Amalfi or Tuscany and soak in the sea, sun and verdant landscapes.
We chose to walk it out, that did stress out my parents a bit, considering they are not used to such long daily walks. However the best way to see this country is to walk its streets, and attend local fares – operas, concerts, exhibitions and meet Italians who are very passionate about their region, history, culture, food and politics.
Our Italian Itinerary
We spent a day in Venice, four in Florence including a full day Wine tour in Tuscany. You could chose to do it at your own pace. While it is important that the usuals are done – Gondola Ride, Pizza in Napoli, Colosseum and Vatican in Rome – trust me when I say this, you must (must) try things that are local, experimental and not so popular. I had read a lot of blogs before we started planning the trip. I was clear with my agent about the keen desire to engage with personal local guides for every experience and also attending culturally immersive experiences throughout the trip. That helped. While walking through the heart of Florence we had with us Irene who immediately read on our pulse and changed the walk-route on the basis of things that we would enjoy more. Plus, often these local city enthusiasts end up becoming a friend and help you experience well guarded secret delights in a city a regular tourist is often deprived of. Also take the train, lots of it. All our intercity transfers within Italy were on trains. You would get a first-hand look of the country, its people sitting on a train peeping outside the big glass window or peeping inside at the group of school students (looked like) busy with a new song they played the whole way.
Venice – Look beyond its Gondolas
Venice, the capital of northern Italy’s Veneto region, is built on more than 100 small islands in a lagoon in the Adriatic Sea. I liked Venice, but the Gondola ride is hyped to a point where you almost feel like you are in a Hindi movie while at it. That not always is a good feeling. Walking through Venice, both the mainland and the island part of the city was a much better experience. We ate at local pizzerias, drank some wine and chit chatted with locals who seemed more than happy to impress in you with Venice is better than any other city in Italy. Of course, we visited St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco), which is heart of Venice. For interested folks, climbing Campanile to get astounding view of Venice is a must. So is the canal view from Rialto Bridge!
That is something you will notice in all the regions. Our guides and friends went out of their way to tell us why Florence or Naples or Rome is much better than the others. You just need to get them started.
Falling in love with Florence
Florence was already a place I had huge expectations from, Well, I come back satiated and yearning for more. This is a city which stole my heart from the moment I landed to the S M Novella station. We took a walking tour here, visited the opera, went to Pisa, spent half a day at the Uffizi Gallery and did the whole day Tuscany Tour.
Wine tour of Tuscany
The wine tour is a must, even if wine is not your thing. The drive takes you through the lush Tuscan landscapes and you visit charming medieval towns and villages along the way (Siena, San Gimigano, etc). These places house some beautiful pottery and produce and take you back in time. Everywhere you look it is a scene of a post card and is highly recommended.
We took a private tour and were lucky to get a driver cum guide who was well travelled and a great story teller. After our town walks he hushed us to al old family run winery with a cellary over a 1000 years old , once owned by the erstwhile Florentine family – Piiti. One of the owners Anka took us through for a tour and sat us down for a lavish meal within the cellars inside the old caves. It was quite the experience. The liberal glasses of Chianti and Super-Tuscans paired beautifully with food made from scratch in the farm by a home chef made for a terrific experience. If you are taking this tour, do keep enough time for this lunch. It would be a crime to rush such a thing; it needs to be savored and lived – one second at a time.
Florence in itself has much to offer. Its beautiful alleys, the seven bridges, the old bridge with its jewelry shops, the galleries, the Medici houses, the symbolisms, the churches and the dome together make for quiet a dizzying experience. That is if you like art. If you don’t, there is still a lot of roam, a lot to eat and a lot to shop in this gorgeous city by the river Arno. We walked almost the entire length of Florence to reach a quaint church to hear an opera. I still wonder whether it is the pianist or the walk which took my heart away.
Planning trip in Italy
In the next part I would talk about the next leg of the trip but let me end with some learning. Even if you choose hotels or accommodations with breakfast, the food served might seem too routine or too little for a lot of us. You could skip that, wake up and get out early to try local breakfast at a small café and take it in with a city waking up to a new day.
Food is not expensive and often very good across restaurants and establishments of different scales and sizes. The locals say some of the best Pizza, Panini, and gelato are sold by specific local vendors in the lanes and should you be a foodie you must give those a try. Vegetarian options are in abundance, so is India/ Asian/ Continental/ American food should you fancy. For us in Italy, we kept to local fare and that was a good decision.
My mom had a knee problem, so there were walk s she had to skip. Taxis here are difficult and expensive (No Uber except Rome) and also forbidden in certain parts of the city which are “pedestrian-only”. Studying these aspects before you plan to book a hotel near your places of interest or pre-book transportation are best calls.
With Italy, there is I guess a tiny thumb rule a traveler friend that mentioned. You have to let Italy happen to you, you have to let it in, immerse yourself and let go off inhibitions. That way you will eat the best pizza with your hand at a local joint and discover that much guarded Bernini in a quaint church which most overlook as you walk by the lanes of Florence.