This particular blog post reveals the details of my most recent venture through Italy, touching on my favourite places (which warranted multiple visits) as well as including some places new. Unlike other countries where certain cities provide obvious tourist destinations, Italy has so many places worth visiting; each one more uniquely Italian than the last.
Of course, it makes sense to start in Milan. My temporary home; a place which finally feels familiar; a city I now passionately defend when people rubbish it for being dirty or industrial. Sure, Milan has lots of traffic and appear grey to the eye, however it also has so many gems that are absolutely ripe for the taking. In terms of viewpoints, climbing the Duomo is the most obvious option. On a good day, panoramic views are available all the way to the Swiss Alps. The Duomo itself is beautiful; it is free to enter, and climbing the stairs is a must (don’t take the lift, it’s more expensive and the experience is over all too soon). Adjacent in the square is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele: an arcade of elitist shops, the roof is absolutely mesmerizing and the tourist tradition of grinding your heel on the bull’s testicles (for luck) means it is included on most people’s itineraries. The other view point worth mentioning is from a 170m hill a few minutes’ walk from the QT8 metro stop on the red M1 line. Milan is so flat that even this small rise provides outstanding views, especially of the San Siro stadium. Shopping down Via Buenos Aires is an effective way to kill ones time, as is relaxing in Parco Sempione – a beautiful park that features Castella Sforzeco, just walking distance from the Duomo. For a day trip further abound, Verona provides the classic Shakespearean experience or a visit to Lake Como provides a taste of raw beauty that reminded me very much of New Zealand. Despite the size of the lake, there is an obvious lack of places to freely swim. Most of the waterfront spots are privately owned and require payment to enter. Our backpacker’s budget saw us doing the sneaky-sneaky and jumping someone’s gate to swim – to this day I like to claim it was probably George Clooney’s wharf we jumped off.
As the title of this blog post suggests, eating your way around Italy is incredibly simple to do. We discovered two amazing pizzerias, Piccolo Ischia and Pizza AM. For aperitivo, anywhere along Navigli is usually a hit, however for the best food (and drink too actually) I would recommend a place called Hora Feliz. Milan’s specialty is the saffron risotto; delectable at Ricette Tricolour, a restaurant that was simultaneously classy and quaint, and which seemed to specialise in everything. For an extremely authentic experience I would suggest Bello e Buono where I had a delicious eggplant parmigiana, followed by the Italian classic – tiramisu. Of course, gelato is a must, and to pick just a few places is oh so difficult, especially when I can’t think of a gelato that wasn’t five star. Gelato Giusto is a convenient pit-stop if shopping along Buenos Aires; however my all-time favourite is Le Gelateria Della Musica, which, although it is slightly out of the way, has the best gelato I have ever tried, and even offers three different kinds of pistachio. For a not so authentic Italian eating experience (sometimes one just craves the taste of home) the California Bakery has the best cakes, desserts, bagels and burgers on offer in Milan. Last but not least, Castelnuovo Pasticceria was one of the most enjoyable eating experiences we have had in Milan; somewhat off the beaten track, it is definitely worth the trip if you are hungry with spare time on your hands. When Danielle and I went, the owner called up his friend who could speak English, and we spent the next hour being offered a huge amount of various pastries to taste, with explanations of their origin accompanying each one. We finished off the afternoon with a cup of complimentary chocolate liqueur, warming to the heart, soul and brain.
One could say my views towards Milan are biased, however I choose to believe differently. Living here for six months has definitely provided me with a greater insight into this fashion capital and all it has to offer; I can understand travellers with limited time dropping Milan from their list of places to go, because admittedly other cities are far more attractive when there is only time to scrape the surface, however if the itinerary allows it I would suggest at least two nights in Milan (one full day) and a day trip to one of its beautiful surrounds. This stopover is made especially easy by the fact that Milan is such a central transport hub; with three airports and a number of large train stations.
One of Europe’s treasures, returning for the second time worked only to cement this view (see a prior post for more Venice information). Travelling with a friend from New Zealand, James and I arrived at Venezia St Lucia train station early one morning, ready for our two day adventure (1 night; in reality all you need). We spent the better part of the day wandering the streets of Venice, getting wickedly lost amongst the intertwining canals, and eventually ending up at the wonder that is St Marco’s Square. Unfortunately little progress had been made on the cathedral since we were there in February, and scaffolding still remained; thankfully it was still possible to appreciate its beauty. That night called for a hilarious story: our hostel instructions told us to get on Bus #5 from Piazza Roma, however when we looked at the departures board we noted that the #5 bus was headed to Novalle – so we went around searching for a bus that said Novalle, rather than one that was #5. Thankfully we noticed before we got to Novalle that we were headed in the complete opposite direction, so we managed to jump off into the torrential rain and find the right bus to catch to the hostel. We had no change of clothes, so we turned up at Camping Rialto looking like drowned rats, and had to wait patiently in our wee little tent as thunder clapped and lightning striked all around us! Great place to stay though; only €10 a night for a tent and slightly more for a cabin (which is outstanding for Venice), private, good facilities and not too far away. The next morning we ensured we caught the right bus back into Venice and bought a 12 hour ferry ticket. You should get up early in order to maximise this ticket, as the ferry trips themselves take longer than expected. First we ferried for about 60 minutes to Lido Island – home of the film festival, and a cute little beach. We then caught a ferry back to St Marco’s Square before catching a ferry to Murano; the home of Venetian glass-making. It was amazing here; still ridiculously beautiful, but next to no tourists. Unfortunately we ran out of time to see Burano (the lace-making island) however it was still a wonderful day out, and seeing Venice by boat provides a whole new perspective. A wonderful two days away; my memories tainted only by getting pickpocketed at Milano Centrale Stazione on our way home; you can never be too careful!
Just a three hour train ride from Milan (for as cheap as €9) lies one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in the world. Cinque Terre, literally translating to mean ‘5 villages’ lies along the coast of Italy, with a mere 9km between the first and last villages. We arrived in Monterosso (some of us feeling a bit worse for wear after post-exam celebrations) which was a quaint little beach, although rather commercialised – with deck-chairs and umbrellas lining the small stretch of sand. We briefly stopped for a picnic lunch, before beginning the hike to the second village; Vernazza. We had two options; walking the coastal route for €7.50, or taking the inland hike, for no price. As poor students we opted for the free path, however in hindsight I would have taken the coastal route and walked one of the other inland paths as there were no other coastal routes open. It was hard, hot and humid, and took a lot longer than the 2 hours we were expecting.
It was such a relief to finally arrive in Vernazza, where we beelined straight for the water. My favourite village (marginally), it was built roughly in a horse shoe shape with colourful houses and restaurants dotting the shoe part, with clear blue water and brightly painted dinghies in the middle. We stopped for dinner here (pizza of course), and unintentionally found ourselves seated next to four other New Zealanders, who were travelling from Nelson. Corniglia was the next village on our agenda. Unfortunately ferries don’t run here, so our options were to train, walk or water-taxi. Still slightly scarred from our hike that day, we opted to water taxi (€30) to Corniglia – it was wonderful arriving at a village by boat, especially as the sun set. This is a hill top village, so upon arriving we had to climb only a million steps to reach the actual town, and then back down again to go for a late night swim (it is an even bigger climb to and from the train station – be warned!). With pockets too shallow to pay for Cinque’s expensive accommodation, we found ourselves a nice clearing and slept outside under the stars. The next morning Danielle and I got up and trained to Manarola – us girls needed some beach time! Meanwhile, James did the inland hike which sounded so beautiful; wandering through olive groves, surrounded by ocean views. Manarola was a rocky destination for sunbathing, however it was my favourite swimming destination – with electric blue water so clear you could see the bottom, and various caves to explore. After the heat got the better of us we jumped back on the train and headed to the last village; Riomaggiore, where we found a pebbly beach to swim at (although the water wasn’t as clear) before having some delicious seafood in a cone for dinner. Definitely my favourite place in Europe to date, Cinque Terre has so much to offer. Although it has no doubt become more commercialised, it has managed to retain a certain element of authenticity – Cinque Terre is everything the pictures say it is, and so much more.
Florence was amazing; great vibe, walkable streets and if you are a museum buff you could easily spend a number of days here. For us, 2 full days was perfect and it was a bonus being able to tie in Pisa. Our arrival in Florence coincided with the opening of the 2014 Football World Cup, so naturally the Italians were right amongst the festivities! We stayed for three nights at Hostel Santa Monaca which ended up being a pretty convenient location, and was right next to a supermarket. After indulging in gelato for breakfast, we did a walking tour whereby we encountered the Duomo (nothing tops Milan), Uffizi Museum, Ponte Vecchio, and of course, Florence’s best gelateria (my flavours were sesame + honey, and lavender!). That afternoon the skies opened, and thunder and lightning were both far to eager to make themselves known – they were both successful. We were supposed to climb the Duomo but decided against going up to Florence’s highest point in a lightning storm, so we headed along to the Galleria Academia, to see Michelangelo’s Statue of David for €6.50. The next morning we woke early (to skip the queues) and went along to climb the Duomo, Bell Tower and visit the Baptistery. For the fourth time in two weeks I was made to put more clothes on to enter, as a singlet and shorts is considered inappropriate attire. We learnt to throw a casual pair of pants into our bags, just in case we saw a church we wanted to enter. That afternoon we jumped on a €6 train to Pisa, to see the infamous tower – which while it was cool to see, it was slightly underwhelming – it amazes me that it is one of Italy’s most well-known tourist attractions. Despite a hop-on hop-off bus existing there, we found not much else to see, and after taking a few cliché tourist photos and relaxing in the sun we ventured back to the train station. We met our friend Dimitri in Florence, went to the supermarket for picnic food and wine and then climbed Piazza Michelangelo where we were again greeted by lightning and thunder. After waiting the storm out, we sat and enjoyed spectacular views over Florence, before heading down to an outdoor square where we watched the England vs Italy football game. The crowd was so wonderfully passionate, and it was awesome having Jim and Danielle rooting for England; which only made it all the more entertaining – especially when Italy won! After missing our curfew (one that we didn’t even know existed) we sat on the hostel’s doorstep until 4am, when someone kindly came to let us in.
Napoli is home of thin crusted pizza, petty crime, and crazy Italian drivers! And oh boy, we saw all of these things. We quickly learnt how to cross the road (Napoli drivers won’t stop); you have to walk out, make eye contact with the driver, and hold your hand out just in case you need to fend the car off! On our walk from the train station to Hostel of the Sun (best hostel ever) a man on a scooter came around the corner and veered so incredibly close to me that I thought I was about to be hit. He stuck his hand out, in what I (naively) thought was an attempt to fend me from the scooter, but instead he snatched my bag from my neck, ripping my strap and leaving me with some serious burn marks. He drove off with my bag, which naturally had everything important to me inside; including my phone, camera, passport and wallet. Welcome to Napoli! The Hostel was very welcoming and sympathetic, and I was tired, grumpy and frustrated after spending the afternoon at the police station. After dropping our stuff off and meeting up with one of my Dunedin friends Anna, we headed off for a ‘cheer-up’ gelato, a wander around Naples and up the hill for the views, finally heading out to a highly recommended pizzeria, which fully exceeded my exceptionally high expectations for Napoli pizza. The next day we collected two more Dunedin scarfies, Claire and Tim, and caught a ferry across to Procida – a €10, 1 hour ferry ride away to a beautiful island with tropical beaches. Although the ‘touristy’ island is Capri, we were forewarned that it is an expensive day out, as ferries are €20 each way, and to visit the grotto (spectacular cave) is at least another €20. Opting for the cheaper option, we wandered around Procida before settling down on the beach for about an hour – before surprise surprise, the thunderstorms hit. And they hit big time! We were absolutely drenched in no time, the hill that we were about to climb suddenly turned into a downhill river, and we had to seek shelter until the rain eased. It was a wonderful day away though; when it is so warm being a little wet never hurt anyone.
The urgency of applying for a new passport (and therefore needing to go to the Embassy in Rome the following day) meant our time in the Amalfi Coast was cut short, however what we had there was still very enjoyable. We stayed at Hostel 7 which was a short walk from the train station one stop before Sorrento. The hostel itself was extremely flash, with wonderful facilities. A classic incident of the Kiwi accent coming through – when I went up to the counter and asked if we could check in, the poor girl behind the counter thought I was asking for chicken, and pointed us in the direction of the kitchen! I had been so incredibly excited to catch the ‘over-crowded, non-air-conditioned, run-down buses along hairpin curves and windy roads, overlooking nothing but the rocks into the ocean’ however this excitement was short-lived, as I soon realised I hadn’t outgrown my car-sickness, which was the claim that I had been making only that morning. A painful 40 minute bus ride to Positano, saw us get off at the first stop possible and walk about 2km down the winding hill into the village. I would recommend the walk, as it provides breath-taking views the whole way, and essentially enables you to explore the whole town by foot. After getting a delicious gingerbread gelato, we found ourselves at the beach (there seems to be a trend in our habits right?!) until it clouded over about an hour later. We bussed back to Sorrento, where we crawled off the bus (Danielle and I had to lie on the pavement until our stomachs recovered) and explored before finding a cute little pizza place in a touristy area for dinner.
An early morning train from Rome saw Danielle, Jim, myself, Jim’s cousin Bronny, brother Matt and friend, also called Matt arrive at Naples, and switch trains out to Pompeii Scavi. Never have I ever been on such a packed train – you didn’t even need to think about holding on/standing up because the ridiculous amount of people squished into such a small space meant that the weight of the crowd was enough to hold you up. It was a relief to finally get off the train, and make our way to the city that was once Pompeii. For €3 we could leave our bags at the train station, and for €11 we could enter the ruins. They were enormous. There is no other word for it. We spent about four hours roaming the ancient city, in absolute awe of the destruction that the volcanic eruption of Mt Vesuvius caused in 79 AD, and the wonderful excavation that was performed to enable us to view the city the way we did. A highlight (as bizarre as it may sound) was definitely seeing the bodies: as a result of the eruption many people were buried alive, over time these bodies decomposed and upon recovery plaster casts were made of the spaces that were left by the decomposition. It was very surreal, and body language and facial expressions on these casts were clear enough to show the pain and anguish that these poor victims endured before their deaths. Limited by time, we were unable to visit Herculaneum; a nearby village which is smaller than Pompeii and even better preserved – a definite must-do on my list for when I return.
Italy has been a wonderful country to base myself in the last few months. I have learnt so much and have encountered a number of amazing experiences (good and bad!) which provided memories that will last a life-time. It is now time to indulge in some more beaches, European sunshine, and many more laughs to come! Don’t worry New Zealand, I will see you very soon 🙂