ITALIA!

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Italy.  The stuff of dreams.

Honestly, Italy was everything I imagined it to be – from the history, the culture, the atmosphere, the art, architecture and street life, I was really in love with this place.  And mamma mia, the food was unforgettable!

My mum and I went on a tour of Italy (Central and North) – we really wanted to do this well and so we thought a tour was the best option to see as much of Italy as we could without the hassle!  And we are so glad we did as we got to experience the art galleries with a specialist art tour guide, and our main tour guide was a wealth of knowledge from politics to history to the best places for local food.  Next time though, I would want to plan my own travels, now that I’ve got a flavour of what Italy’s all about!

On the tour, we went through Assisi – Siena – Firenze (Florence) – Pisa – Padova – Venezie (Venice) – Montepulciano – Roma (Rome).  At the end of our tour, we planned our own mini trip to Riomagiorre (one of the villages of Cinque Terre – which was one of the places my mum really wanted to check out).  At the end of this article is a section on my travel tips/guide/observations that might inspire your travel!

The gallery above, and the video below (and a couple more images further down this post) will hopefully translate to you the amazing time I had in Italy.  As for the things that can’t really be translated (and I shouldn’t be so lazy in expressing it in words!):

  • The food was incredible – fresh produce, simple, and so flavourful.  It really is a foodie’s paradise in Italy (and I can now see why it’s also nicknamed EATaly!).  We sampled many local dishes, and each town/city had a thing it was known for.  I was also pretty diligent with this type of research – a la “top 10 things to eat [insert place name]”.  I don’t think I had any bad meals or bad snacks ever – and I ate a lot!
  • Beautiful architecture that reflected the various different time periods and eras of Roman society – from medieval, renaissance, baroque, classical and romantic, I couldn’t take my eyes off the buildings.  Adding to this, the modern style of living of the Italian folks and street life – my inner artist and classics nerd was in heaven.
  • I am not kidding when I say that I was deeply moved by artworks and artistic performances throughout Italy.  Being swept away by such beauty (and delicious food – yes, I get swept off my feet by delicious food), it was really hard to hold myself back from snapping every single moment and experience.

 

MINI GUIDE / TRAVEL TIPS

I only had just under 2 weeks in this amazing country, and have not explored South Italy yet either, so there’s still a lot on the to-do list.  Here’s a brief of my trip:

Assisi

This gorgeous medieval town on top of the hill is very picturesque.  Expect green carpets of moss along alleyways with slivers of golden light streaking through… I’m not even kidding – it’s that pretty.

The town’s importance is due to the two beloved saints being born and buried there  – Saint Claire and Saint Francesco – you’ll see a lot of religious goods being sold!

Siena (UNESCO world heritage!)

Very gothic medieval vibes here.  We visited a couple of churches – the Duomo San Maria is beautiful – everything is made out of marble!  The piazza del Campo is a seashell shaped “square” where the Palio race is run twice a year in July and August – this is where 10 horses from each district race and jockeys have nothing but reins and a stick (yep super dangerous, because jockeys do die)!

We wandered the streets and found some very nice shops selling artistic goodies.  We also had two famous pastries/desserts from the area:  Ricciarelli (a cookie almond kind of thing) and Panforte (sticky sweet sort of cake with lots of fruits and nuts).

Firenze (Florence)

Guided by our wonderful Florence tour guide, who was impeccably styled – in that classic European chic kind of way, Florence blew me away with its art and fashionable residents.  Our tour guide was super clued up on all this art history, and I got to learn a lot about the differences between medieval art (riddled with depictions of God) and renaissance art (defined by realism) at Galleria dell’ Academia.  The art pieces held at Galleria dell’ Academia are really interesting and well worth the visit (no pictures allowed though!).  There you will also find Michelangelo’s sculptures – including a little section on how he worked from just one piece of marble.  One of his greatest works – The David – is a massive sculpture that took 3 years to finish.  A guided tour is highly recommended if you’re not an art expert – you learn so much more with the guide, and there are just so many interesting facts about art history and Michelangelo that you can learn about!

You’ll also have to stop at Florence’s Piazza del Duomo – a gorgeous cathedral made out of marble.  The colours used represents the Italian flag – red for religion, white for piety, and green for hope (so I’ve been told).  The cathedral is really impressive and it took a heck of a long time to complete.  The art work on the building is amazing – we didn’t go into the cathedral or go up to the dome, but there is the option to do so!

Wandering around Florence was great – a very walkable city – and also, like Rome, built on top of the old Florence.  While wandering around, you can stop by to rub the nose of Florence’s boar for good luck, and drop a coin to bring you back to Florence in the future!  Head over to Ponte Vecchio for that classic view and postcard photo of Florence, and to Galleria Uffizi where you can observe statues of famous figures in the open air museum courtyard – free! (some copies of famous sculptural works here, as well as a famous original statue of Perseus with Medusa’s head – which was very politically significant at the time it was commissioned).  Art and sculptures carried political or religious messages as, at the time, this was the only way to communicate messages to the masses who were largely illiterate.

We had lunch in the Santa Croce area and also got gelato – which was amazing!  We met some very friendly and helpful Italians when we got lost and had to find our way back to the tour group too!

We had delicious food in Florence, and also tried Florence’s pizza (each region does pizza slightly different – in Florence, the base has more of a chewy texture).  Seriously, you can’t go wrong with food in Italy!

Pisa

An afternoon trip from Florence:  Our local guide gave us an explanation of the buildings in Pisa’s miracle square – and they’re all leaning, but of course the tower is the most famous one.  The baptistery represents birth, the cathedral represents life, and the cemetery (obviously) represents death.  The leaning bell tower doesn’t actually represent anything.

The baptistery actually had Islamic decoration influences as well.  I found this to be the most interesting of buildings as it had this oculus at the top which allowed rainwater to fall, which is used for baptism, and had the offshoot of this amazing echo effect that was perfect for choirs!  The Cathedral is also very beautiful and interesting – the ceiling is covered in gold, and the chandelier represents Galileo’s work on pendulums.  The Pisa tower is also where Galileo famously used to drop weights off and founded the concept of gravity.

Bologna

Walking along the streets of Bologna, one cannot feel like one was in an romantic Italian movie set – seriously.  Also, check out the oldest university in Europe, where Galileo attended, and the Asinelli towers of Bologna, built by two of the richest families in competition with one another (and hey, another leaning tower!).  As for food, go for some arancini, tortellini rice cake (has an almond and orange flavour), and of course Bolognese!!!

Padova (Padua)

Stop off at:  This beautiful city comes with – you guessed it – a beautiful church, the Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua (i.e., and more fun name Sant’Antonio da Padova in via Merulana) – this church was overwhelmingly stunning (no photos allowed) in the sense that there was so much to look at, but at the same time it was not so chaotic.

Venezia (Venice)

If Bologna is a movie set, Venezia is a story book.

Bridge of Sighs – not sigh as in romantic “ah-sigh, Venice is so beautiful”, but rather, so the story goes, it is the bridge that convicts walked across before heading to their prison cells – that is, prisoners sigh at their last final view of Venice through the window before being taken down to their cells… so yea, depressing but interesting!  Apparently, the reality is that those days of inquisitions and summary executions were over by the time the bridge was built.  Nonetheless, the idea behind the story is captivating!

My first proper stop on Venice island was actually in Piazza San Marco (surprise surprise, probably a stop for everyone), but actually we visited this on the night we arrived – and I was so glad we did!  A night wandering around Venice island is magic in itself, but boy oh boy, Piazza San Marco is probably the most magical place I have ever seen.  The warm yellow lights shone gold on the beautiful buildings and the quartets / pianists / various bands at the famous café bars at the squares took turns playing classical music that echoed wonderfully at the square.  It was as if the whole square was a giant ballroom.  I was so touched by my the experience, I nearly cried (and this is what I mean when I say Italy took three pangs at my artistic heart – one other moment was in Florence with an incredible street performer!).

Recommendation: pop into one of the café/bars at San Marco square to really enjoy the experience – I went to Café Lavena where I had a aperol spritz (a commonly drunk cocktail of Italy) – again, standing is cheaper (lol).  Wandering the streets is best, and one other main site to see is the Rialto Bridge, the oldest bridge across a canal.

 

Not without some history to boast, here’s a few facts I found interesting about Venice:

  • The two columns at the entrance near the water is considered to be bad luck as this is where it starts flooding first!  Also it was the gateway at which princes and princesses were welcomed, but also the site at which executions took place.
  • The façade surrounding the square used to be a palace.
  • The clock at the square dates back to 15th century and still works on the old system!  Two figures strikes the hours on a bell, one is old and the other young to show the passing of time.
  • There are many historic restaurants that earn a title (e.g. a family run business that has had at least 50 years in order to earn that title!)  We walked past one and the owner happened to be outside and gave us free shots of grappa when he heard we were just on a tour – totally unplanned!
  • Venice, the city of merchants, and no kidding – there are so many stories about merchants and you can see the influences of various cultures everywhere as Venice was a trading centre!
  • St Mark’s Cathedral, is wonderful and exemplifies some of the influences Venice has had from being such a cosmopolitan city earlier on, such as Eastern influences in its tiling and mosaics.  The Cathedral also marks the lowest point of Venice island and gets flooded maybe 200 times a year – you’ll see long chair-like/table-like platforms, and they’re used during floods for people to walk around!
  • Buildings have their own characters and it always look so different depending on the time of the day and the light reflect from the canals.  Truly beautiful.

For food, I had pasta with favioli beans (so simple but so good) at La Madonna, a top local restaurant famous for its seafood (also a historic restaurant).  I love how in Italy (and also other places in Europe) seating between tables of different customers is actually pretty close that you end up having conversations with new people all the time!  Gelato is always good too.

Montepulciano

A town known for wine and olive oil, as well as amazing scenery that reminds you (in case you need to be reminded) that you’re is Tuscany.  We had the most amazing food here – things to try as we were told by our guide:  picci and truffle pecorino cheese.  Try popping into shops for tastings of their wine (free, yay!) which includes “noble wines” which are apparently very expensive.  I had the best bruschetta (pronounced:  brush-KET-ta, as I’ve been told!) – again, so exemplary of simple, fresh, and good food in Italy.  Also had homemade picci noodle pasta with garlic and chilli oil, and homemade truffle cheese with bread.

Rome

Our first stop of our Italy trip was actually Rome but it was only a night before we headed north.  We did the rest of our trip on our way back from the north.  On our first night, we saw the Colosseum at night which is really spectacular.

I loved that everywhere you walked, you would encounter a piece of history – stones lying around – a testament to the old city and the old Roman days.  I learnt that this new Rome we now see was built on top of the old Rome, and the walls that are left dotted around Rome shows the old demarcations of Rome!  This means that public works, such as railways, is a nightmare because diggers will always bump into old monuments in the middle of their work, and they will have to pause and decide what to do with it (explains why the underground rail system felt kind of haywire to me).

We went to Colosseum for a proper tour and it’s amazing that it was built so long ago and still stands today.  Also imagine the things that have taken place here!

Our walking tour included the Vatican City, which we went to super early in the morning to beat the crowd!  We learnt interesting thing about the Swiss guards and the Cathedral had impressive decor.  We also saw Michelangelou’s sculpture, which is made from marble – and could really appreciate the hard work and talent behidn this!   We crossed a beautiful bridge called Pont Sant’Angelo, walked past a beautiful square called Piazza Nanova, with many artists selling paintings in the square!  There were two fountains there one of Neptune, and the other one which represents the four (discovered) continents at the time – Africa, Asia, Europe and South America – both crafted by Bernini.  His naturalistic work in hard solid marble is amazing.  Also checked out the Pantheon, which I had studied in Classics class at High School!  Also went to Trevi Fountain, which is another beautiful piece of work by Bernini.

The Roman Forum was also pretty amazing – huge, and by that time my legs were really tired!  Also, went walkabouts at Piazza del Campidoglio.  Bought pizza by weight in the antique stores area of Rome.  And just stopped at whichever place took our fancy to grab snacks of ravioli, gelato, and so on!

Riomaggiore (Cinque Terre)

Cinque Terre is a UNESCO world heritage site, and it’s not hard to see why!  Precariously sitting on cliffs, the village of Riomaggiore is definitely a sight to be seen.  If I had more time I would stay a couple of nights and walk between the villages – I hear the hike is amazing!

Travel to:  Popping over to Riomagiorre was more hassle than we had realised though as we were unlucky to encounter (on that day) a workers’ strike against the railway companies!  This mean that our trip to Riomaggiore was a lot more expensive than we had planned (We got the train to La Spezia earlier in our trip at Rome’s train station – there were helpful people there but queuing was a nightmare, other than that it was relatively easy!  But instead of being able to train for a low price we had to take a taxi – luckily there was a couple in the same situation as us so we shared a taxi ride there, but we had to taxi back to the train station ourselves and that was pricey!  We then got our ticket to Nice which was also expensive because well, last minute!  Lesson learnt:  try to book train tickets ahead of time as much as possible!)

 

Other observations

  • My experience in relation to customs at Rome’s airport was like… what customs?!  Coming from New Zealand, where we take border control so seriously, it was so strange being able to just walk past without strict border controls in Italy!  The luggage belt was nightmare though!
  • Impressions of coming in from the airport into main centre of Rome was that a lot of the buildings, in terms of its unruliness (not so much the style) reminded me of my drive in from the airport in Egypt!  Lots of browns, creams, and desert colours and a lot of satellites sticking up everywhere!
  • Central Rome is a lot more prettier than the outer edges of the city – as with most big cities I suppose!
  • There are walls around parks because parks used to be private property of Roman nobility!
  • Coffee is amazing – and you should experience it the Roman way – drinking an espresso at the bar with a pastry of your choice (also the price of your coffee will be cheaper if you stand, as opposed to sitting down in the café!)
  • I love that you can get water from actual fountains or even just on fountain that runs water along the roads everywhere in Rome – this is due to their old (but still good) aqueduct systems way back when.
  • Smoking culture in Italy kind of sucks – especially spoilt by NZ’s smoke free environment, smoking is everywhere in Italy (including in some restaurants and cafes)
  • I’m also sad about the way horses are treated there, and didn’t go on any horse carriages because that would just be too cruel – but anyway, that’s my 2 cents on that!