Note: What follows is a 6 page account of the 24 days that Susan and I spent as tourists in Italy in April 2017. Hopefully it can be used by ourselves to recall those names and dates we too easily forget and for others to help plan similar vacations.
Introduction: Despite the numerous personal and business trips that we have made to Europe in the last 25 years, the only major country we have never visited was Italy. Thus, I sort of saved it for a retirement holiday and it did not disappoint!.
We decided to travel in April for two reasons – it is often a terrible month in Edmonton mostly because the expectations (for spring) and the reality (of winter) often do not align. This was borne out this year when we heard of (not sadly) two separate snowfalls of over 20 cm while we were away. We had also heard of the very hot weather and HUGE crowds in Italy during the summer. We were still quite shocked at the number of tourists and we were glad we brought sweaters and jackets, but we concluded that April is a very good month to visit Italy.
We planned the trip to visit the major tourist sights in North and Central Italy – mostly for the art, culture, and scenery. We also wanted to visit Genoa, where I had been invited to do a presentation at the National Institute for Educational Technology. Finally we wanted to try to use AirB&Bs and from previous travels, we knew that one had to book very early to insure good selection and prices. Thus, our itinerary was more or less set, when we booked four AirB&B sites in September 2016.
Venice: We decided to visit Venice first and booked our flight booked with Air Canada and they only fly nonstop from Canada to Rome, when we arrived in Rome. We took a pre-booked (cheaper than getting last-minute) a high-speed train ticket which departed 2 hours after our landing. Although we were a bit concerned with timing, we made the train from the airport directly to Venice. The scenery was great but after an all night flight, Sue mostly slept – my new policy of popping half a sleeping pill on the plane worked wonderfully and so had no problem enjoying the view as we sped along – up to 300 KPH.
Walking out from the main train station onto the Grand Canal is a wonderful experience for all first time visitors.
We bought SIM cards for our IPhones (25Euros which gave us telephone and 4 gigs data (but no text) Sue’s worked fine but mine would not activate – problem with Apple Canada?? This data phones proved extremely valuable for Google maps and for phoning our hosts in the AirB&B – and of course for answering disputes and queries with a brief consult with Mr Google.
We bought a 2 day pass on Vaporetta boat buses (a bit expensive at 30 Euros each) but a great way to explore Venice. After the 2 days we found we could (and did) walk everywhere. Venice is like no other city we have visited because of the lack of cars and roads. Everything from garbage, to ambulances, delivery vehicles to fire engines is a boat! Thus creating a unique and very quiet environment. The Grand Canal is packed with water taxis and tourist gondolas but also with all types of commercial boats. In addition a huge cruise ship briefly blocked the view one night from St Mark’s square.
We did the usual top tourist sights, museums and churches including visits to LIDO and one of the other small islands. We also booked one walking tour with only 6 of us and a charming young Art student as guide. Our AirB&B Campo St Marco was great, full kitchen, a large eating area, bedroom and living room (which we hardly used). The large windows opening onto St Thomas Square afforded us a bird’s eye view of a bit of Venetian life. We also experienced for the first (but certainly not last time) great Italian pasta, fish and pizza. After 4 nights we took the train for a one day visit to Milan.
Milan: We left early for the 2 hour trip to Milan. We found our hotel near the train station and headed to the old town. We tried for a few minutes to buy tickets to visit the famous Douma (Cathedral) but the line up was atrocious, so we opted for a far too expensive hamburger and beer on a terrace overlooking the Doumo Square, and had a great view of a very excited champion soccer team getting photographed for over an hour. We paid the big bucks for an excellent guided walking tour which ended with 15 minutes in front of Da Vinci’s Last Supper in the Rectory of a Dominican Monastory the Basilica di Santa Maria delle Grazie. This was as our first walking tour with ear phones and it make a tremendous difference as the guide can chat away without halting to gather in the 18 tourists on this tour. He was excellent with lots of stories and time for questions. I hadn’t realized how badly the City had been damaged by British bombers during the 2nd world war. We visited the usual tourist haunts – Cathedral, opera house, Gallery, castle etc .and two hours later arrived for our 15 minutes with the last supper. Having the guide interpret the painting and its restoration (it was NOT done as Fresco on wet plaster so immediately began to fad and was re-painted by various authors and finally the Monks cut in a door which cut off Jesus feet!_. Twenty years of restoration in the late 1980-90 revealed some of the original Di Vinci paint and outlines. He also informed us that this very Monastery was the headquarters of the Italian Inquisition and that the fires burned nightly in Milan for many years – YUK!. But the expressions on the faces of the apostles, the effect of lighting in the refractory, the ‘miracle” that 2 sides of the room had been destroyed by bombs in WWII but left the painting intact, were each impressive.
Genoa: The next morning we headed for Genoa – normally a 2 hour (slower) train, which was over an hour late leaving the station in Milan. Thus, we missed a lunch for us put on by the National Ed Tech Centre folks. I did an updated presentation on Interaction modes in 3 generations of distance education pedagogy. There were about 30 people in attendance and one off-site location. They celebrated my visit and the tomorrow’s Easter break with a delicious and complex traditional Italian home made Easter cake and lemoncello – lemon liquor. The day ended with likely our best meal – with our host Francesca Pozzi and her husband Massi at a great sea-side restaurant owned by one of their friends. There was only one other couple at the restaurant and the owner had to show us pictures of the very fish we were eating and how he had caught it earlier that day. The next day they took us for our first-ever sail on a 38 Ft Bavaria sail boat in the Mediterranean. Not much wind but nice to see this largest harbor in Italy.
Our Genoa AirBnB was right downtown and turned out to be the most luxurious accommodation that we enjoyed on the trip. It was a large apartment with marble and hardwood everywhere , very modern kitchen and a great king sized bed!
We spent the following day exploring Genoa. I went to the Maritime museum while Susan got lost trying to go shopping and wound up in an interesting museum! The old town was great and quite amusing to see the faithful gathered around and praying at a full sized body of the dead Jesus on Easter Saturday – waiting for resurrection tomorrow I guess. Also heard a great guitar player outside the Cathedral, who told us he had played the Bach Cello suite just for us, as he saw us watching!
Cinque Terre: We had, from most visitors we knew, heard to Italy of the wonders of the 5 villages along the Italian Riviera that make up the CinqTerre. We had an Air B&B for 3 nights (2 days) at Manorola. It was Easter weekend and even without the cruise ships it was PACKED with mostly Italian tourists. Anyways we arrived at Manorla by train about 8:30 PM and had a bit of a time finding the AirBnB – thank goodness Manorola only has one road!!
We spent the first morning relaxing and enjoying the balcony view of the town and listening to the bells tolling for Easter morning in the Church next door. They even enticed Susan to attend Mass. In the afternoon we headed down to wade through huge crowds at the Manorola Beach. We knew the sea trail to Riomaggiore was closed but our map showed the village was only about 3km away. What we didn’t know was that those 3 km were horizontal and didn’t count nearly an equal distance of vertical steps. We really were not prepared for the roughness of the trail, the zillion steps and many loose rocks. But we made it!! We certainly were glad to end with Bruschetta and craft beer in Riomaggiore. We took the 3 minute train ride back- the ticket machine was broken and the train packed so it didn’t matter much, and then hiked another km back up to our peaceful airB n B to relax and enjoy the view. We got a taste of why so many Italians are in such good physical condition
Our second and last full day in Manorola we decided to be smarter and took the local bus up 300 meters to a little town (nice church) on the ridge overlooking the sea. Then it was a still-challenging but easier walk down to the next village. The weather was nearly perfect – high of 19 degrees. There were quite a few people we passed in both directions, but it was interesting seeing the gradual rebuilding and planting of vines in the once abandoned terraces. We also looked carefully at the only mechanism used in these vineyards – the monorails that took the farmers up and grapes and olives down. We had a great lunch overlooking the sea at Corniglia and then headed along the trail to Vernazza. We enjoyed a beer overlooking the harbour and castle and then took the train home.
Florence and Tuscany: Next morning we were off to Florence and rented car so we could see some of Tuscony where we had our only one un-booked night of this trip. Two days earlier I went on Expedia and found a “members sale” for a “country hotel” for $66 Canadian near Sienna. We’ve had some less than positive experience at really cheap hotels before, so we crossed our fingers for this one. We had booked a rental car and fortunately bought our GPS with European maps. We had a wonderful drive through Tuscanny – absolutely the most stunning scenery we have seen thus far. We stopped at the mountain top town of San Gimignano. We enjoyed listening to a busker (and bought a CD) of a musician playing an new Swiss steel drum-like instrument called a Hang. The “country hotel” turned out to be a fabulous 200 year old 4 star hotel (see view from our bedroom window at Borgo San Luigi
– a lot like Jasper Park lodge. They upgraded us (I guess they didn’t see how little we had paid) to a Junior Suite, that had a list price on the door of 350 Euros. We spent way too much on the hotel restaurant dinner but it turned out to be a wonderful night, and the breakfast the next morning turned out to be no charge. We wish we had booked the place for another night or two. The following day we drove through Tuscany stopping at a couple of hill top towns including San Miniato and then visited the Leonardo de Vinci museum, in you guessed it – in Vinci!
Back to Florence and dropped off the car sans incident – thank goodness for GPS and found our Monastery – which seemed pretty Spartan after 4 stars last night!!
As others have noted Florence is an amazing City with a very rich Renaissance history. It is amazing that this landlocked town became the world centre for both Art and Banking – perhaps mostly due to the leadership of the Medici family leadership? Our stay at the Monastery was the worst accommodation of our trip. Susan had insisted on it based on one previous Monastery Stay and some latent fantasies of religious life. The room was (as expected very plain) but it was annoying to listen to the Italians arguing, or were they as Sue suggested just talking vivaciously next door late into the night and then again at 6:00 AM! We ‘ve noticed that besides extensive arm movements Italians tend to talk to each other very loudly. We also had trouble getting Internet, but Sue did do a couple of very early morning counseling sessions from the common room downstairs. Our two visiting days were spent at most of the big art galleries. We paid for “Skip the line” tickets for the Academia Gallery and were awed by the size and grace of Michelangelo’s David. The next day we visited the largest Art Gallery in Italy the Uffizi Palace and saw the sculptures and paintings accrued by generations of Medici rulers. We ended the day by enjoying the Sunset after a half hour climb up to Michelangelo Square overlooking the City.
Rome: For the final week of our visit we took the train from Florence to Rome. We had some trouble finding the AirB&B as we got mixed up between municipal trains and the Metro. I also had a very close brush with a pickpocket as during the rush and push to get into a very crowded Metro train I reached and noticed my wallet was missing. I swept my hand down and it was dangling, waiting to fall or be plucked at the waist line of my jacket – yikes – that would have put a damper on our holiday.
We did find the AirBnB and it lived up to its reputation and the reason we booked it, by a very large terrace (5th floor with elevator!) full of plants that overlooked St Paul’s Cathedral and the Vatican. It was a stunning view during the day and lit at night. We had 8 nights here and spent many a slow morning enjoying breakfast on this terrace.
We planned a more or less unplanned visit and spent the first day exploring our neighborhood and finding a delightful neighborhood restaurant with the owners with a huge smile, great food and not a word of English! The next afternoon we braced ourselves for the crowds and visited at Peter’s Square and Basilica. We were told it is the largest Church in Christendom – and it was impressive. We also wondered through the crypt to see all the dead popes and one lonely female – a deposed Princess who had sought refuge in the Vatican in 17th century.
The rest of the week we leisurely did the main tourists sites of Rome. All were crowded with tourists, but still retained the grandeur of past ages and great art. We did our one and only hop-on hop-off bus tour – never sure is they are worth the 30 Euros each, but did get a good overview. In turn we visited the Vatican Museum, numerous churches, Spanish steps, Trevi Fountain, the Forum and Coliseum – with lots of time for relaxing in our apartment. We also really liked the winding streets, ambience, buskers and restaurants of the Travestere area (on the right bank of the Tiber.) Also took in a Saturday morning combination baroque concert/tour in the Art museum Palazzo Doria Pamphilj (30 Euros) which was really excellent. To our surprise we saw the original painting from Dutch painter Brugel of skaters on a canal – we have had a larger print of that picture hanging in our house for nearly 20 years, and didn’t really know where the original was. As compulsory, we also toured the ruins of the Roman Forum and coliseum. Both worth the visit but hordes of other tourists and a bit of a tragedy that so much of these temples and the Coliseum was recycled by later popes and the wealthy into Churches and palaces. Ironically the only temples that did survive renaissance-age savaging were the ones that had already been converted to Churches. Visiting the 2,000 year old Pantheon temple was a definite highlight, and one of the most impressive spherical works of architecture we have ever seen.
Conclusion: I’ll end with a few lessons and hints:
- April is likely a good month to visit Italy as we had only one day of rain, but I did wear my sweater at least part of every day. Susan admitted that she brought too many warm weather items. I can’t image the hordes of tourists when it gets busy in the summer, as there were more than I liked in the Spring.
- Getting a sim card with data for google maps, downloading tickets, contacting AirB&B hosts and other conveniences – is a must. We likely could have gotten by without our GPS by using Google Maps, but it was nice to have a backup.
- AirB&B is a great way to travel. The price of accommodations are similar to hotels (see below). The size of accommodations, kitchens, appliances and balconies are MUCH better and 3 of our 4 AirBnB’s could have slept 4 people. But you are charged a cleaning fee and making contact with host is more challenging than walking into a hotel- so they are best for stays of 3 or more nights. With AirBnBs book VERY early to get best selection and prices. Our experience booking that 4 star country hotel in Tuscony through Expedia at $66 Cdn was a real bonus but hard to repeat!.
- Total Costs. We ate out at least once every day at medium priced restaurants average maybe 40 Euros/meal with wine, paid around $120/night for accommodations, usually used public transportation, but did grab a taxi when really needed or desired, and didn’t skimp on museums – but also didn’t do things like 80 Euros for a half hour Gondola ride in Venice. A nice way to enjoy these once of a lifetime experiences is to delude yourself that a Euro is equivalent to $1 Canadian even though in 2017 it costs $1.50 Can for a Euro!
|Concerts, restaurants, tours, museum, transportation, etc.||$3074||$128|
|Total (2 persons)||$8357||$348 – $249 minus airfare|
These totals compare quite favourably with costs of 3 week cruise, but one shouldn’t underestimate the time and worry of booking everything oneself – and then resolving the challenges when you get lost or show up for a train at the wrong time or the wrong station!