August 4th — August 29th
Italy was set to be our final foreign destination before spending a month home in France. We were looking forward slowing down our pace and basking in the estival ease of the mediterranean countryside.
Our first destination in Italy was la serenissima. People had driven our expectations for Venice into the ground, citing the tourist-laden arteries and saturated attractions. As a consequence, we budgeted fewer days there than we did in Berlin, Prague or Vienna. While it’s true that at the height of its tourists season, navigating the narrow alleys surrounding Saint Marc’s cathedral is ludicrous, the crowds thin out considerably as the day progresses. Step away from Saint Marc’s and you’ll find yourself marveling at how quickly you’ve lost yourself in a maze of quiet lanes. This accentuates at night, which I found to be the best moment to wander in Venice. The slender streets made feel a little vulnerable at first, but the truth is that Venice is extremely safe. Stumbling from plaza to plaza, crossing the canals and occasionally pausing at the foot of a church while lounging in the soothing warmth of the summer air will remain one of the highlights of our trip.
The history of Venice is particularly fascinating. I had no idea that Venice was such a dominant force for centuries, and that it was in fact a republic, not a monarchy or part of a feudal system. Learning of how it’s even possible to build a city floating on a marsh is mind blowing. The main tourist attractions, the Doge’s palace, and Saint Marc’s cathedral are entirely worth the long lines. The Doge’s palace was particularly inspiring because of its size, its splendor and the historical details it revealed about the inner workings of the Venetian republic.
The most typical attraction we didn’t do was the gondola ride. We were turned off by the price (80 euros per ride), and honestly not that drawn to the experience. We had already taken a ferry across the main canal, and that was extremely impressive, but we preferred seeing the rest of Venice by foot.
Venice delivered! It lived up to all the crazy ideas and images I had of it growing up. Of course, the throngs of tourists are a thing, but the city and its beauty help you see past that.
We rented a car and drove out of Venice to Como. On the way there, we picked up my brother Eric and Anaïs’ mother and sister, Malika and Célia. We rented a place downtown Como and spent the next few days visiting the city, swimming in the lake, hiking the mountains and exploring the coast.
It was good for both of us to spend time with family for more than a short dinner or a conversation at a coffee shop, especially after having been on the road just the two of us for months on end.
The lake and its surroundings are alluring and well kept, with luxurious villas and picturesque villages abound. The issue is that they are not the best kept secret. The result is a gorgeous area, constrained in a limited geographical space, with way too many people trying to enjoy it all at once. So it was a little crowded, but I would still deem it a worthy stop, especially if visited during the springtime, with a focus on hiking in the surrounding villages as opposed to the littoral directly. The mountains looked majestic and the hike we did yielded majestic views and lead us through some quaint, sleepy Italian villages.
Our week together had come to an end so we dropped everyone off in Milan. Célia, Eric, Anaïs and myself had a pizza downtown and perused the neighborhood surrounding the cathedral of Milan. Before long, Eric had taken off for the Airport, Célia and Malika had gone back to their hotel and Anaïs and I were on our own again. I couldn’t mention Millan without talking about Gelateria Sartori. It’s a tiny shack next to the central train station that served some of the best Nocciola ice cream we’ve had in Italy. Don’t miss it it you’re in the vicinity.
Bologna, Firenze and Siena
Our trip lead us south to the city of Bologna, which has a beautiful and lively downtown area full of historical landmarks. The roads are lined with ancient arcades under which restaurants and boutiques thrive. Bologna also contained the most prevalent example of something I started noticing in many places, even in Lyon, which is partially naked churches. Bologna’s main square is overlooked by San Petronio cathedral, which is decorated waist-high in a sumptuous marble facade, which abruptly transitions into red brick. Its decoration was interrupted in the early 16th century for fear that it might rival Saint Peter’s basilica in prestige. Saint Petronino’s is also the largest gothic brick cathedral in the world. To me though, the most surprising was to see that it was brick underneath all the visible stone and marble of churches. For all these years, I thought that churches were built entirely of the same material as their facades! I was also surprised to see that some churches simply didn’t get finished. I noticed the same thing later on in Perugia, and also in Lyon where the northern tower of Saint Nizier is currently naked, in contrast with its ornate neighbor.
In terms of food, Bologna has a good reputation, and we found some decent spots (including the Osteria dell’Orsa), but I was growing quite frustrated from paying up to 4 euros per liter of water in restaurants and from the anti pasti / primi piatti / secondi piatti menu structure which invariably left either your wallet or your stomach feeling lighter than you would like.
Next stop was Florence, which must have been at its absolute peak when we visited because the streets were flooded with tourists on a similar scale to Venice. As in Venice however, the beauty and the sheer number of things to visit helped us see past the hordes of visitors. Museums, cathedrals, monasteries, hills, rivers, bridges, domes, great food and breathtaking views: Florence has it all. We had one of our best pizzas in Italy at a modest place named l’Pizzachiere, pondered on the beauty of the classic sculpture of David in the Galleria Dell’Academia, sympathized with a cardboard-bass player performing on one of Florence’s bridges, and savored the sunset atop Florence’s hills. Overall, Florence is a succession of delights that not even the oppressive crowds or our shoddy hotel could put a damper on.
We got our car back and drove down to Sienna, the halfway point on our route to southern Italy. Sienna is the quintessential example of the Italian hill town. The hill Sienna was built on folds over such that you can admire the view of the opposing end of the town no matter where you are. The city is layered in narrow alleyways that drop sharply in altitude at each new block. On top of the hill sits cathedrals, churches, palaces, and the plaza del Campo where horse races pitting the various local families against one another in an age old rivalry take place every year.
After having travelled through a substantial portion of the world, I found what I think was probably the most stressful of my experiences in quiet Sienna. While driving in, Google maps lead us to our hotel through a maze of cramped streets that were crowded with pedestrians. Here we were with our oversized Fiat Tipo, almost ground to halt on a thoroughfare that was theoretically ok for cars, but impossible to drive through due to the masses of people strolling at a leisurely pace. It wasn’t long before we started attracting glances, then glares and gestures, but getting out of there wasn’t as simple as rearing out as the sea of pedestrians closed behind us. In that moment, I felt so embarrassed and out of place that I think part of me would have preferred to die on the spot. So that’s a lesson I wish I had known before coming to Italy: don’t trust Google maps 100% for your itinerary!
After a rather long drive, we reached the south of Italy. We cruised past Naples and settled in Cava de’Tireni, a small village east of the Amalfi coast that would serve as a base for us to explore the region in the next 3 days.
I have to say that the South of Italy gives off quite a different vibe from the rest of the country. It’s closer to Marrakech or Delhi in some respects than it is to Oslo. It’s dusty, littered, tagged up (even some of the churches!), extremely warm, and people drive with the kind of nervosity reminiscent of our travels in Asia. Comparing it to Delhi may seem like a bit of a stretch to some readers but if you’ve walked around in downtown Naples and experienced the narrow, dark alleys with trash piling up, improvised religious shrines and clothing items hanging by the hundreds, it’s really incredibly similar to a back alley of Delhi. We thought we had left the grime of Asia behind us and we caught a glimpse of it it Naples and Cava de’Tireni that we just weren’t expecting.
Without meaning to overindulge in stereotypes, I should mention how warm and welcoming our hosts were in the South of Italy. In Cava, our Airbnb host, although as fluent in English as we were in Italian, managed to convey a sense of hospitality that was refreshing after some of our recent experiences. This extended to restaurants where not only the waiter but also presumably the owner took a particular interest in our meal, recommended his best dishes and made us feel very welcome. Prices for regular expenses like meals also tended to be cheaper.
We spent a day in Naples, which suffered from the inverse problem as Venice. A couple of people had recently told us great things about Naples and our expectations were relatively high. While we did enjoy some pretty sights in Naples, overall it felt dirty and unwelcoming and lacked the charm that was so apparent in other Italian cities.
The following day was spent visiting Ercolano and Pompeii. It was jarring to observe what they were able to unearth from such depths. The payoff, of course, was how well preserved everything was. Ercolano was perhaps more impressive than Pompeii because of how well conserved it was. You could clearly make out the frescos of the ancient temples and homes. The detail was so apparent that I could make out lines in perspective, a technique seemingly lost until it reemerged in renaissance art over a millennia later, which were used to decorate and make rooms seem larger than their actual size. On the lower levels of Ercolano, prisons full of complete human skulls, hunkered against one another conjured thoughts of what it must have been like to be a prisoner, abandoned when the volcano erupted 2000 years ago.
On our third day, we visited the Amalfi coast with most of our afternoon spent in the stunning cliff town of Ravello. By some miracle, we found free parking a few minutes outside of the village center, which allowed us to wander the burg carefree. Ravello lived up to its reputation, with quality food, breathtaking views of the Mediterranean and peaceful streets. We could have stayed there forever, but our curiosity about the rest of the shoreline lead us through Amalfi and Positano. It’s an exceptional coastline, but we were happy not to have lingered there given how overcrowded it was and how difficult it was to get around by car. I have to imagine that the best way to explore the Amalfi coast would be by boat, to avoid the claustrophobic beaches, backed up roads, and freely wander the village streets without so much hassle for parking.
Perugia and Cinque Terre
We left southern Italy pleased with the experience, but eager to reconnect with the version of Italy we had become familiar with up north.
Once more, we stopped midway in a hill town. We chose Perugia, which has to be one of the most charming cities in Italy. It distinguished itself by its cleanliness, and its far reaching views of neighboring valleys and mountains. Perugia is minute, pristine and is host to surprisingly prestigious palaces and churches given its modest size. It might be the luck of the draw, but we ended up having some of the best pizza and gelato in Perugia as well (La Pasteria and Gelateria Veneta).
The next morning, we woke up to news of a devastating earthquake, which supposedly affected Perugia, Italy. We hadn’t felt a thing and slept through the night fine. We later on discovered that it shook Amatrice to the ground and the death toll was in the hundreds. As we travelled through Italy, I kept wondering at the brick villages. Most of the monuments were built of brick, and I knew from living in San Francisco that brick crumbles like sand when an earthquake hits. I hoped that such a day would be long to come, and it felt like a cruel joke that such an unlikely event happened right as I feared it.
We spent less than a day total in Perugia and made off for Cinque Terre early the next day. Maud, Anaïs’ high school friend would join us that night. We stayed in La Spezia, a relatively large port town, given that hotels in the five villages of Cinque Terre were prohibitively expensive. It turns out that being in La Spezia wasn’t a big deal at all, Cinque Terre is equipped with an effective rail system. Seeing how crowded the Amalfi coast had been, it was a relief to be able to get around so easily and not have to use a car constantly. I was also a little weary of walking into something extremely touristy, with egregious prices and overcrowded arteries that simply make you want to stay home. Thankfully, either through good organization, or by virtue of the fact that it was the last week of August, we found the villages to be busy, but not overwhelming. Some villages felt downright quiet. Overall, Cinque Terre lived up to what all the positive stereotypes of Italy: clear water, pristine coastlines, great hiking, a sweet & easy pace of life and restaurants that left us a final reminder of the true potential of Italian cuisine.
As a side note, I wanted to comment on a few topics that I thought warranted a section of their own.
Food in italy
Overall, I can’t say that I was blown away by food in Italy. On average, I found that you could eat for cheaper, access a more varied menu, and enjoy higher quality food in a French or an American city. It’s difficult to eat well on a budget in Italy. If you go to restaurants and want to eat cheap, you either have to find an Osteria with a large variety of smaller, inexpensive local dishes. Trattorias, which are more prevalent, will usually have the antipasti, primi piatti, secondi piatti and pizza menu structure. The dishes are often too limited for a meal, but too expensive to order two, so if you’re eating on a modest budget, you have to settle for a meager dish of pasta, or a copious and cheap pizza (beware of the salt and imminent pizza-fatigue if you do this more than a couple days in a row). So you find yourself eating pizza and pasta, or paying through the teeth for some more varied or elaborate dishes. In the end, if you’re able to buy some bread, some antipasti, some cold cuts and some fruit, store them and make a meal for yourself every once in awhile, you’ll probably be better off. For my money, Italian antipasti with some good bread is one of the emblematic mediterranean dishes, it’s reasonably priced, healthy, and delicious so if you’re able to store some food, go for it! Luckily, our final culinary experiences in Cinque Terre were extremely positive with some of the most memorable meals of our trip. So we left on a high note and happy knowing that despite struggling to eat great meals on a regular basis throughout our Italian stint, we had at least experienced the height of what Italian cuisine could produce.
Driving in Italy
We drove for the first time since Norway and after driving so much in the US, it was a real treat to drive in a country where people understand the concept of a fast lane and actually pay attention to their blind spots and rear view mirrors. That said, Italians, especially in the South lived up to some of what they are infamous for. Their “get out of my way!” attitude in the fast lane, while warranted, can be a little much for my taste, and often a little dangerous.
Cars have turn signals to help make driving on the roads a more predictable experience. This fact seems to elude a majority of Italian drivers in the South of the country, and it happens enough for it to be noticeable in the North as well.
Another habit which I never witnessed elsewhere is that of driving on lane separators, so as to occupy two lanes. It’s a bit of a mystery why this happens. Is it unintentional, or mischievous? People's’ driving makes it genuinely difficult to tell, but I suspect that most drivers do this to keep people from passing them on the right and keep their options open as to which lane will go faster.
The combination of all the above makes their very narrow freeways and country roads somewhat stressful despite driving a medium-sized car.
The last thing I have to mention when discussing Italian roads are tolls. Holy crap do they bring the pain. We’ve driven sub 10km distances between highway booths resulting in 7 euro bills. Over the course of our trip in Italy, we payed hundreds of euros in highway tolls. I’ll be the first to admit that I know nothing about how to manage a freeway but I suspect that the private companies managing these highway networks are probably making very healthy margins. Think about it: a single visitor who drove somewhere short of 2000km was charged multiple hundreds of euros. Scale that to an entire country and you’re looking good