Whenever I recollect the World History lessons, the renaissance and the Roman Empire top the charts just like when I think literature its Julius Ceaser, when I think politics the term Senate, think mathematics and the Roman numerals… the Roman legacy has been such a critical part of our education. With such rich context, Italy definitely was on the bucket list for me and after much ado, it happened this summer when I ,accompanied with 3 other women friends, took the much awaited trip.
The discussion started with getting a Eurail pass and doing a Europe trip by train but we soon dropped the idea as it was peak summer (tourist season) and we didn’t want to risk the ambiguity of not getting seats on the trains that we wanted to. So, we decided to chalk out our own itinerary across Italy.
A master plan was created on a Google doc with each adding suggestions on what was a must do or a good to do in each city. Once we had decided on the number of days in each city, the train tickets were booked first to freeze the dates. Train tickets require full payment upfront and were non-refundable. There are different types of trains run by multiple companies and the quality differs so do check out options before booking. We found the trains that were named as Frecciarossa most comfortable as they had spaces below the seats for luggage so we didn’t have to lift heavy luggage and there was free wifi in the train. Trains named Italo were a bit uncomfortable as all luggage had to be lifted up in overhead spaces and they didn’t have wifi.
The hotels were booked on Booking.com. We decided to book hotels in the City center so we could make the most of the day and wander as much as we wanted vs being packed back to the hotel faraway by evening. Of course, given our limited budgets, we had to do extensive research but it paid off with all the hotels being very comfortable and very well located.
The visa ended up being the biggest challenge. The Italian consulate in Delhi follows its own norm of issuing the visa only a day before the due date of travel irrespective of how long before it is applied for. This was clearly told to me by the consulate (who by all means were very rude and did not speak more than 2 sentences). Despite applying a month in advance, I got my visa on the day I was to travel and so did my other friend. If you don’t believe this, you can type VFS Italy on twitter and check out the number of complaints. VFS is of no help so don’t even bother pleading to them. Other than making you do multiple rounds of their office, they can do nothing to expedite the visa (again, I was told this clearly multiple times by VFS). My friend in Mumbai was asked by the Consulate there to pay up the entire amount for hotels upfront. In all my travel experience this is the first consulate which asks people to pay up everything without having a visa. In a nutshell, the consulates actually prepared us well for the rudeness towards tourists that Italy is known for and even we were to experience to some extent :-).
Given this gift of anxiety, we did not make any further preparations or bookings before travel as we didn’t want to lose more money if the visa didn’t come on time. It was a big risk as it was peak tourist season in Italy but we took the chance.
Leaving the poor visa experience behind, I finally boarded my flight to Milan with all hopes of a fun and adventurous holiday. Since each city that we visited is distinct and an experience in itself, I have captured accounts of our experience of each of them below in detail.
Milan (1 Night 2 Days):
I landed in Milan in the morning. The Linate airport is closer to the city but my flight landed at Malpensa which is about an hour-long drive from Milan City Center. I was to meet my friends directly at the hotel as they were travelling to Milan from Paris. If you are comfortable then the airport shuttle bus is perhaps the cheapest mechanism to get from Malpensa to Milan but given I was by myself and had fallen a bit sick on the way, I took a cab which cost me a bomb at 99 Euros. Would caution that if you do want to book a cab, it is better to take a taxi from inside the airport than outside from the stand where they would charge even more and do not even look safe.
Our hotel, Mercure Milano Centro was right in the city center and had quite a few joints nearby for a quick bite. A must see at Milan is the masterpiece “The Last Supper” by Leonardo Da Vinci. The tickets just for the entry to see the painting are sold out months in advance. We got the tickets in combination with a city tour a couple of weeks before we travelled. Given our visa situation, this was the only tour we booked in advance. The best time to see the Last Supper is the morning to avoid the crowds so we had booked it for our second day in Milan.
Since we had all afternoon on the first day we ventured around the famous shopping streets of Milan Via Montenapoleone and Via Manzoni. There are many shopping tours to factory outlets near Milan but we weren’t excited by the thought of spending our entire day (the tour is for about 9 hours) going to a shopping mall. So, we chose to check out the stores in the city to get a real feel of Milan and we did get some good stuff to pick too! I am sure one doesn’t go to Milan for cheap shopping so better to pick something really stylish for its value versus sales stuff that you would get everywhere in Italy. After blowing up money to our heart’s delight, dinner was at Ristorante Maruzella Pizzeria one of the popular restaurants at Milan (be prepared to wait for your turn for a long time) and next to our hotel.
The next morning, we started our city tour with the Last Supper and true to its fame, it did leave us mesmerized. I would suggest listen carefully to the guide explaining the expressions of each character in it. You get only 15 minutes inside to observe the painting so make the most of it. We then went to the Sforza Castle which was built in the 15th century and currently houses several of the city’s museums and art collections. From the Castle, we walked through the Via Dante to the Galleria which was the original version of the malls that we all throng to today. Amongst the fashionable boutiques of the who’s who in the industry, located on the ground is a tiled mosaic depicting a bull. There is a tradition to crush the bull’s testicular region with one’s heel and turn three times which will bring good luck. Due to huge number of people doing this for years, the place is now marked by a hole and one can totally imagine the bull wincing in pain as it goes through this torture every day!
We ended our tour with the Duomo (Cathedral) which in itself is an architectural marvel. The tour got over around noon giving us enough time to have lunch at a chic restaurant in Piazza Della Scala and check-out of the hotel to catch our train to Venice at 2 p.m. 1 night and 2 days is sufficient for a stay in Milan unless you are a shopping zealot.
Venice (2 Nights):
The sight of the ebbing waters of the Grand Canal as soon as one steps out of the Venice train station is a pure delight. Our hotel Abbazia was in a lane just steps from the station. It couldn’t have been a better location. All we had to do was to step out of the lane and get into the Vaporetto. Since most sightseeing places and outlets in Italy close by 5:30 -6 p.m. it was practically the end of the day when we reached Venice. It was raining as well so a walk through the rain took us to a Ganesh restaurant which was much recommended by our hotel front desk and was going to be our only Indian meal in Italy.
While there are a lot of guided tours to Murano, Burano and Torcello islands from Venice, one doesn’t really need a tour because all you do there is to hang around, shop and eat. We bought a day pass worth 20 Euros for the Vaporetto (water taxi) the next day. Our first ride was to Murano Islands, known for its glassware. For 3 euros, you can watch a demo at a glass factory. There are many outlets selling glassware right from big show-pieces to smaller trinkets. To take the boat from Murano to Burano, you need to walk through the Island so don’t spend all your time at the first outlet you see as you will find a lot later. The island looks very colorful due to the decorative glass pieces all over. There are many food joints there as well. We spent around a couple of hours there leisurely walking through the island checking out the stuff that the stores had to offer.
Our next hop was the Burano Island, known for its lacework. Again, like Murano Islands walk through the island and check out different stores vs buying at the first outlet. We had lunch at Burano Island. You can see all food joints being quite busy. The colorful houses lined next to each other through the island give it a very distinct look. Since we didn’t want to go to Torcello, we spent our time leisurely in Burano enjoying our meal and picking up some lacy knickknacks.
From Burano, we returned to Venice to drop our stuff at the hotel and head out to the very popular St. Mark’s Square. St. Mark’s square as the fame goes, was terribly crowded with people really tripping over each other. You really need to get yourself a good spot to stand and admire the beauty of the Cathedral and Doge’s palace. We grabbed a coffee at one of the restaurants offering ample seating to soak in the buzz of the square. The crowd did not seem to be receding and more or more people came in as the touristy buzz moved from the cathedral to the food joints and the open areas where musicians, performers etc. had just started setting themselves up.
We took the Vaporetto and got off one station after the St. Mark’s square where we boarded a gondola. The gondola rides were for 100 Euros and could accommodate 6 people for that price. We were 4 and had the Gondola to ourselves. A 35-minute ride gave us one of our most touristy yet fondest memory of Venice. As cliché as it sounds, thanks to R.D Burman’s rendition of a popular Gondolier’s song “do lafzon ki hai dil ki kahaani’’ echoes in your ears as you enjoy the ride. Venice looks much more beautiful as the evening progresses so I would suggest take a Vaporetto ride after 6 p.m to enjoy the sights around the canal. I couldn’t help smiling at the people literally hanging from the Rialto Bridge as our boat went under it. The area near the Venice Station is buzzing till about 10 p.m so we hung around after dinner at the Trattoria Povoledo enjoying a beautiful view of the canal from the restaurant.
Florence (2 Nights):
From Venice we took a train the next morning to Florence. Our hotel B4 Astoria Firenze was again walking distance from the station but given we all had luggage, we took a taxi which charged us a minimum rate of 14 euros to drop us to the hotel. Given we wanted to do a Pisa and Tuscany tour the next day, we only had that afternoon to see the statue of David, one of Michael Angelo’s masterpieces apart from Sistine Chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica (Vatican). We first tried to find skip-the- queue tickets for David through our hotel. However, despite trying through multiple tour organizers, the hotel couldn’t find tickets for us for the same day. We walked out a bit despondent to take a tour of the city center and while my friends were waiting for me, they happened to walk up to a MyTours kiosk near our hotel. As luck would have it, the lady at the kiosk said that she had tickets for entry at 5:45 p.m! We collected our tickets from their office near the Duomo and then had all afternoon to enjoy a walk inside the cathedral (which is free except the museum) and shop at the famous San Lorenzo market in Florence. Do bargain to your heart’s content at the market. One of the shops where I picked up the bags from belonged to a Bangladeshi gentleman and my ability to speak Bengali helped me negotiate a really good deal.
The queue for entry to the Fine Arts institute that houses David is really long at all times so it is totally worth it to by skip the line tickets. Our guide Francesco was a young student at the fine arts institute and gave us a very detailed and passionate explanation of each piece of art there. No matter how much one has read about it, like the Taj Mahal, when you see the statue in front of you, you can’t help the jaw dropping expression. The finesse with which each muscle, strained nerves, the eyes constantly looking at you have been sculpted make you fall in love with the sculptor!
Nothing else in the museum matches the beauty of David but thanks to our guide’s passionate stories, the statue of Mary holding the body of Jesus after his crucifixion struck a chord.After our rendezvous we David we walked around to the Piazza Della Republica which has quite a few restaurants in front of the carousel that offer a great ambience. We had dinner there and retired a bit early for our long tour the next day.
Our tour the next morning (which we had booked through our hotel) started with a visit to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Before we got down, our guide alerted us of pick pockets and to be careful with our belongings. The walk to the Leaning Tower is through the market place so one must be careful. There is an enormous amount of open space around the Baptistry and the Leaning Tower and one can take pictures to their heart’s content. We could see people in all kinds of funny poses trying to get a picture of holding, pushing or catching the tower!
We had about an hour there so we took a leisurely walk around the tower, had a cup of coffee and a dose of Gelato before heading back to the bus. I nearly had my camera and money stolen on route as a couple of pickpockets joined our group mingling in as tourists. As soon as I turned around feeling uncomfortable about my bag, a gentleman coming from the opposite side pushed one of the women in the group. That is how we realized they were pick pockets and my stuff got saved from being stolen in a matter of seconds.
Our next destination after a drive through the Chianti region was San Gimignano, a UNESCO world heritage site, famous for its medieval architecture. The town was like a small fort. A walk through shops selling all kinds of souvenirs took us to the historic city center buzzing with people enjoying the sunshine along with food and drinks. We picked up a Gelato and then loitered around the town clicking pictures of the architecture. An hour was good enough to be spent there. Do note that the town has an uphill walk which can be a bit strenuous on the knees. Washrooms are not easy to get to so save your strength for an arduous walk or just have something at a restaurant to use the rest room there.
We then drove to a wine estate which was a long drive and hence our guide had asked us to eat something at San Gimignano. The tour included a lunch at the wine estate. While the drive through the Chianti hills of Tuscany region was a beautiful one, the lunch at the wine estate was nothing to boast about. I have had much better wine tasting experiences. So, if you have an option, avoid this. From the wine estate, we headed to our last stop which was the medieval city of Siena.
To our luck and some extent even anxiety, we were in Siena a day before the famous horse race Palio. The city was flooded with people. On one hand, there was the anxiety of getting lost in the sea of people and on the other hand the whole experience of various districts marching around cheerleading for their teams and people coming from all over to spend the night at the stadium just to watch the race from an apt spot in the morning was insightful. We walked around the city to the Cathedral, our guide telling us the history of city and the importance of the Palio race. We left Siena around 6 p.m. and reached Florence around 8 p.m.
Rome (2 Nights 3 days):
The last part of our Italy sojourn was the capital city of Rome. Once again, our hotel the River Palace Hotel was very aptly located opposite the People Square. The first thing we did was to sort out the plan for the next couple of days. Since we were flying out the third evening, we wanted to spend our second day in Rome which was the only full day we had to visit Amalfi coast and Pompeii. We decided to do our Vatican and Colosseum visit on the third day. After much diligence, we realized that the option we were getting from our hotel to book a private tour through Amalfi and Pompeii was a better option, though slightly more expensive but a lot more comfortable given the duration of travel.
With these decisions made, we booked a city tour for us to take us through the main attractions of the city. The guide charged us around 195 Euros for a 3-hour tour across the city showing us the Victoriano, the Pantheon, Senate, Trevis fountain, filling us in with bits and pieces of Roman history as she pointed to each building before finally leaving us as the Spanish steps. If you have time to read up about each of these places before visiting Rome, you can just go around seeing all these places by yourself. After a sumptuous dinner, we retired for the day.
We started early at 7:00 a.m. for the Amalfi and Pompeii tour. After 3 hours of driving from Rome, the beautiful coastline loomed on our right. The Mediterranean landscape along the coastline offers a spectacular view which was a treat and very a different experience from the architectural delights that the rest of Italy had in store. After a couple of stops at Sorrento and Positano, we halted for lunch at Amalfi. The bright yellow umbrellas lining the Amalfi beach added a lemony tinge to the Mediterranean blue!
From Amalfi, we headed to the ruins of Pompeii, the city destroyed by the ashes from the volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. We were stunned to know that even after 2000 years and being excavated from ashes, the stadium of Pompeii is still used for concerts due to the superior acoustics. The brothel which is the other attraction with frescoes of the menu of offerings was thankfully not crowded at that hour. We were told that in the morning the queue of tourists trying to get to see the brothel extended till pretty far. We didn’t realize how couple of hours passed away listening to the interesting stories of Pompeii before we ended our tour and returned to Rome.
Our last day of the Italian extravaganza was marked by an awe-striking visit to The Vatican. We took a guided tour for the Vatican given the thousands of people there and to make sure we didn’t miss the key places. Our guide did a good job of doing a briefing before entering the Sistine Chapel as the Chapel was brimming with people and we had to be quiet. Her briefing helped us absorb the beauty of the frescoes and observe the nuances even amongst the crowd. The vividness of the tapestry paintings or the master pieces like the School of Athens only leave one dumbfounded. Standing inside the St. Peter’s Basilica in an experience in itself. The panorama of architectural marvels when you step out of the basilica is astounding.
Our last stop was the Colosseum. We were glad we didn’t take a guided tour there as it was pretty self-explanatory. The strength of it withstanding the enormity of centuries is beyond imagination.
As we packed our bags to head home, we talked about our experiences across Italy, the beautiful craftsmanship that we had witnessed, the hospitality extended by the staff at some of the hotels, the amazing sense of humor which seemed to be part of the job description of hotel receptionists at Venice and the possessiveness of Italian waiters towards their food. The rudeness they would demonstrate even if you asked for some salt (do not even think about requesting any customization of food) was too noticeable to forget specially since we encountered it at multiple places. But this rudeness by some incompetent people seemed like dust against the genius of the artists who have left Italy such a proud legacy for the generations to come. As I end my Italian Odyssey, I feel extremely humbled.