Wine in Florence.
Pizza in Naples.
Beaches on the Almafi Coast.
Come embark on an adventure through Italy! One of the oldest and most romanticized countries in the world.
Venice – a city built on stilts.
If you arrive by train, as you exit the station you will be met with the vibrant energy of The Grand Canal. Considered to be the main highway of Venice, the Grand Canal is chocked full of every kind of boat you could think of. From DHL and UPS boats delivering packages, to fishing boats selling their catch, bright yellow speed boats marked with “Ambulanza,” and blue police boats, taxi’s and florists, boats hauling construction equipment, garbage collecting boats, ferries and tugboats. Basically if you’ve seen it in a car, a truck, or a store, you’ll see it here on a boat.
The top attraction and a must-see while visiting Venice is St. Marc’s Square. The only square deserving of the name “Piazza,” (all others are referred to as Campo), St. Marc’s is nothing short of Venice on parade. Here you will find the best the city has to offer. From elegant window displays to thrifty bargain shops, upscale restaurants and decadent foods, live bands and street artists. And of course, St. Marc’s Basilica which holds an impressive 85,000 feet of gold mosaic (that’s 1.5 American football fields!).
Like so many other European cities, there is a far less popular area, hardly spoken of – Contrada dell’unione, or the Jewish Ghetto. Here Jews spent most of their days, and all of their nights locked in the gated island of the Ghetto Nuovo. A memorial consisting of several sculptures and the names and ages of those killed now lines two walls facing Campo del Ghetto Nuovo. Lighten up the mood with some sweets from one of the many Kosher bakeries in the quarter.
You may want to bump Venice farther up on your list of places to visit, as the city itself is sinking. This collection of 118 islands and 417 bridges is roughly the size of New Orleans, and only has about 3 feet of elevation, which drops a little each year. Because of this, it’s inhabitants are choosing to leave. What once was a bustling city of 120,000 strong has now been reduced to a meager 60,000.
Florence – Home of Leonardo Da Vinci, Pinocchio, and Gelato
One of the top attractions in Florence is the Ponte Vecchio bridge. Lined full of shops, here merchants and traders display their beautiful and often times enchanting Florentine jewelry. Come check out the artwork during sunset for an extra beautiful experience. Fun Fact: The Ponte Vecchio is the only bridge the Nazi Army left intact during WW2, as Hitler (allegedly) stated it was too beautiful to destroy.
Florence lies in the heart of the region of Tuscany, and is the home of the infamous 14′ tall Statue of David. Also stop in and check out Duomo di Firenze, an absolute breathtaking piece of architecture. Paneled with green and pink marble and proudly flaunting Brunelleschi’s depiction of The Last Judgement on the dome ceiling (Pictures are allowed here, so take as many as you want!)
Sitting directly opposite the cathedral you’ll find one of the cities oldest buildings: the Baptistery of San Giovanni. Known mainly for it’s octagonal shape and it’s three sets of bronze bas-relief doors which tower over 5 meters high (that’s about 17 feet tall). The doors are just under 3 meters wide (nearly 10 feet) and each present an arrangement of ten panels. The East Doors are the most notorious, as Michelangelo himself dubbed them, “The Doors of Paradise.” This set of doors displays several stories including Adam and Eve, Cain and Able, Drunken Noah, and the fall of Jericho. Speaking of drunken Noah, wine is super cheap here, I’m talking a euro a bottle. I wasn’t above drinking straight from the bottle as I meandered those ancient streets.
As a young girl I watched the film, “Under The Tuscan Sun” and completely fell in love with this specific Italian region. San Gimignano is an hour south of Florence, a beautiful ride through rolling hills, scattered with the Italian Cypress trees the area is so well known for. The walled city could come straight out of a medieval storybook. With gated entrances, high towers and narrow cobble stone streets, San Gimignano is one of the lesser known must-see cities in central Italy. Packed with art galleries and starving musicians, this is the perfect place to spend an afternoon. Enjoy some gelato by the fountain, or a charming stroll through the surrounding countryside. Grab a slice of pizza while you’re at it!
Pisa – Obviously!
Who can visit Italy and not attempt to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa!? Definitely not me! Pisa is a quick hop off the train, and the tower is about a 20 minute walk from the station. An hour or so will do ya here in this city, as it doesn’t have too much else to offer. Take a walk along the banks of the Arno (the same river that passes beneath the Ponte Vecchio in Florence) and grab a quick bite to eat in one of it’s numerous cafes. Perhaps take a gander at the ancient cemetery Camposanto Monumentale on the northern edge of Cathedral Square. Once you’ve seen the sights, hop back on that train! Let’s head on down to Naples!
Napoli – As the Italians say
First thing’s first when you’re in Naples — PIZZA! It’s huge, it’s cheap, and it’s delicious! As the birthplace of pizza, it’s a right of passage to eat pizza during your stay here. Order yours whichever way pleases your taste buds, but if you want to go traditional, request “Pizza Napoli” – a Margherita pizza topped with anchovies and capers. Other than my beloved Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cartoons as a child, I had zero experience with anchovies. Fish on my pizza? Erm… no thanks. However, Italians use white anchovies which are milder tasting than the salty brown/black one’s we’re so used to here in the states. I wasn’t sure at first, but it’s not so bad!
Half an hour south of Naples you’ll find the remains of a once great city; Pompeii. We all know the story of Pompeii; In 79 A.D the ever-looming Mount Versuvius erupted, raining volcanic ash down on the city and leaving two thousand people buried alive. A beautiful city that sat on the Bay of Naples, thriving in the tourist industry and reaping the benefits of wealthy vacationers, Pompeii was left desolate and abandoned.
Nowadays, after several excavations, you can visit the site for around 13 Euros, roughly 14.50 USD. The entrance is an obvious one, so no worries about getting lost, and an easy walk from the train station. You can pay a bit extra for a guided or audio tour, and can easily spend hours here. I’m sure if you’ve ever Googled, “Pompeii”
you’ve seen the mummified bodies in glass cases, there are also artifacts laying around and roped off areas where there are current excavations still underway. There are about a dozen or so food stands outside of the entrance where you can purchase food and snacks to bring with you into the site, as well as a cafeteria inside the ruins. I found the cafeteria to be a bit distasteful and took away from the overall somber ambiance of the place – let’s get serious, this is a mass graveyard. But it’s there if ya need it. Of course a reenactment shot of me running away from Mount Versuvius wasn’t exactly adding to the natural ambiance either!
Cinque Terra – “Five Lands”
Although a bit overshadowed by the Amalfi Coast, Cinque Terra is a beautiful collection of five sea-side fishing villages. From North to South they are: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. There is a train that runs along the coastline connecting the five villages, as well as La Spezia (the main transportation hub just south of Cinque Terra). The train is a cheap option if you want to get from one village to another rather quickly. Although the train generally only runs once per hour, it only takes between 5-10 minutes to reach your destination. Each ride can cost you around $1.50 – $2.00 USD, or you can purchase a day pass for around 12 USD.
I did ride the train, however I didn’t feel the need to purchase a pass. One of the perks of coming to Cinque Terra for me was the ability to hike the cliff-side path that connected all 5 towns. These trails can take between 2 and 3 hours to traverse, can be a bit dangerous in several places (no railings, sharp drop-offs, etc) and can also be closed due to heavy rains and landslides. However, they offer some fantastic views, great swimming areas, and fabulous photo-ops.
If you’re coming to lay on a sandy beach under a brightly colored umbrella, Monterosso is the village for you. From Monterosso to Vernazza there are several coves where you’ll generally find some nude sun bathers, and some excellent areas for cliff jumping. Further south is Corniglia, the only village not set directly by the sea. Corniglia is actually perched high up on a hilltop, offering stunning views in the evening. Next you’ll find Manarola, one of the most picturesque of the five. With it’s brightly colored houses, rocky cliff-side and crashing waves, Manarola makes all the postcards. Lastly is Riomaggiore, offering some phenomenal hikes and also a less populated beach.
Amalfi and Positano
The time I spent in Positano happened by accident. It was about 10:30pm when my bus was passing through Positano on our way to Amalfi. Except when it’s completely dark, you don’t speak Italian, and you’ve never been to Amalfi before… Positano looks like it could fit the bill. So ya jump off the bus, look for signs, anyone speak English? Where’s my hostel … find out that no, this is not Amalfi, the last bus was the one you just ditched, oh and by the way, Positano is literally one of the most expensive places to visit in Italy. Welcome!
So I laid down on a park bench, my pack underneath my head, and the lights of the verticle city dancing on the ocean waves. It really is beautiful, and I had this picture taken the next morning (above).
I hadn’t had breakfast and the sun beat in through the tented bus window. It was hot. I became quite nauseated after several hours going up and down switchbacks, narrowly missing passing trucks, hairpin turns and less than a foot between me and a sheer drop off. Once I arrived in Amalfi I practically spilled out of the bus in search of my hostel. Before I knew it the sun was hidden behind dark clouds. I was between rock faces, taking a hundred steps up and then fifty steps down, my pack was heavy and my stomach was churning. Then the rains came. This was one of those times I just thought – Can I not catch a break!?
But Amalfi does boast a dramatic landscape; mountains drop off into the ocean and brightly painted buildings stand against a lush green forest backdrop. With terraced vineyards and orchards above, and sandy beaches creating a perfect crescent against the vividly blue sea below, Amalfi is the perfect blend of cultural and natural wonder. The next few days spent there were beautiful. The cafe’s are cozy and the music is lively. There are definitely worse places to spend a few days!
All Roads Lead to Rome
Ah, Rome. Italy’s capital.
What I remember most? Eating amazing falafels. SO many. Everrrday. (Have I mentioned I’m a bit of a foodie?)
What I love about Rome is that everything is so big. Those guys really knew how to go big or go home.
I felt like an ant in front of the immense white marble monument known as Piazza Venezia, now a central hub where four major roads meet. Pictures just don’t do this building justice.
An era I had read books and watched movies about all my life. But I never felt while reading or watching those films, what I felt as I touched the crumbling stone and saw the chains still mounted in the floor.
The Roman Ruins, vast and beautifully lit up at night.
Eating a late lunch on the Spanish Steps – 138 in total. Women gossiping, old men playing chess and children hopping up and back down again. A typical Tuesday afternoon.
The massive and mysterious Pantheon.
And tossing a coin into the fantastically detailed Trevi Fountain. Let’s stop here, there’s a legend about this…
They say that tossing in the first coin guarantees your return to Rome, the second will ensure a new romance, and the third will ensure marriage. I did toss in one coin, just to say that I did. I skipped out on the second and third. I’m not typically one for superstitions.
And then you know what happened? Later I actually did end up back in Rome! And to think I didn’t toss in the other two! Personally I think it’s too bad that you can’t just skip to the second and third coins… I mean, with all of the places in the world to see, do you really need to come back to Rome?
After spending a few weeks in Italy, it was time for me to move on. So with that, I’ll wrap up my tour. Good luck with your future coin tossing!
Been here? Headed here? I’d love it if you shared your thoughts! Leave a comment in the section below!