Italy is a marvelous country. You can go back again and again and there would still be tons of things to see. The whole world is a big fan, and I am included. The food is great, the people are warm, and the art and history, omg.
This is my third time to go to Italy, and I can see myself returning at least a few more times in my life time. How do you explore Italy? Start with Rome, big city with big history, but somehow retains the small village feel. The streets are cobbled, the churches are intimate, and the houses are coloured in that Italian yellow-orange-red way. Unlike Milan, which exudes the feel of a Metropolitan city.
Once you’re done with Rome and Florence, go explore North Italy. We flew to Venice, then took train to Verona, Milan, Cinque Terre, and flew back to London from Genoa.
For most if not all Europe first-timers, Venice is a must destination, and I can absolutely see why. The whole city is a cultural theme park for adults. Leave your 21st century self, and enter Venezia, an island where time seems to stop in 1500s. The buildings, the canals, the bridges, the islands, they’re all as beautiful as all the pictures you see of Venice.
(Update: I have since put up another post – a photo essay on Venice)
Some people say that Venice looks more beautiful in pictures than in real life, but I’d say that it is exactly like how I imagined it to be. I wonder if this is just my problem? Some people also say that Florence is dirty and I didn’t see all that. I must have seen right through the dirt, stain, and moss, and gone daydreaming.
Do not miss the trip along the Grand Canal – the biggest canal in Venice, from the train station to St Mark’s Square (San Marco), or vice versa. The public boats go along this canal, so you can get a day pass and hop on hop off the entire day. Admire the backside of people’s houses and grand buildings, where interior pathways drop straight to the water. Imagine living in 15th century going to a masked ball with your intricate gown or what’s-the-equivalent-male-clothes, and getting picked up with a gondola at the back of your house, slowly sailing the canals with the sound of water, the lights dotted your surrounding like fireflies, and the murmur sound of the party in the distant.
Do not miss going along the Grand Canal at night.
The four days we were in Venice we went by boat every single day. (Didn’t go on the expensive private Gondola though – that’d cost you €100 for 45 minutes.) On the last day we were on the boat almost all the day long, island hopping from Venice to San Giorgio Maggiore to Murano – island famous for its glass works, the Burano – famous for its lace works and coloured houses. We got a little too excited in Burano like children in Legoland, shouted and ran to this coloured house and that coloured house and took pictures. Pink, blue, neon green, yellow! I imagined what colour I would paint my house with if I live there.
Venice comes with a price. Everything is expensive (remember Disneyland?). There is €2 per-person cover charge of every sit-down meal, and if there isn’t (some places try to get customers by advertising this), they would get their money another way by charging more for water and service fee. Expect the minimum of €16 per person for any sit-down meal.
There was no grocery store. We saw one somewhere near the edge of the island, and it was closed.
After Venice, we’re off to Verona, Milan, Manarola (Cinque Terre), and Genoa, all using regional trains, with tickets bought on the day. Regional trains are very cheap. It costed us between €2 to €7.50 to go between any of those cities.
Note that trains in Italy are generally divided between the speedy trains and the slower regional trains. You can buy the speedy train tickets from overseas but generally not the slower trains. The speedy one is obviously more expensive, and depending on where you go, it may not be worth it. I was perfectly fine with the slower trains.
My tips is to check the schedules online (trenitalia.com) and note down a couple of train times that you’d like to aim for. Buy the tickets at the station from the ticket machine. If you do these two things, you avoid the horribly long queue at almost every station, full of clueless people probably, needing to ask the poor Information fellows. Research is key to saving time!
Verona is a nice little town with Roman ruins and bridge, though it is most famously visited for Romeo and Juliet’s fame. I will do Verona in more details at another post, because boy do I have a thing or two to say about the whole R+J industry in Verona. (Update: I have since posted my problem about R+J industry in Verona here)
Milan was somewhat predictable. As the business centre of Italy though, you’d probably pass Milan if you go anywhere near Northern Italy, even if it’s just for flying-in spot. I missed the Last Supper because I didn’t book too far in advanced enough. Remember to book at least a month ahead people!
Cinque Terre is a treasure. It consists of five villages on the West coast and there’s a walking track from one village to the other. These walking tracks are often closed because of landslides. You’d wonder why people build villages at so risky landscape. I’d believe it if they say because it’s beautiful, because the view is incredible. Two of the shortest tracks were closed when I was there, but I had to the chance to walk the other two tracks (two hours each).
How do I even begin to describe? The walking tracks go along the hills and mountains at the side of the sea so one side of us is greens and the other side the sea. At certain points on the track, you could see the villages from afar, tiny and colourful.
At the village of Vernazza, at its little harbour, we spent a couple of hours just sitting on the side, occasionally took a short 2 minutes walk to get the best Pizza shop in the universe (we went back and forth a couple of times), cake, and drinks. Picnicking at the harbour with breeze, looking at the sea, the hills, the birds, the village.
I could die there. I mean, seriously, that’s what passed through my mind. It’s so beautiful, I could live here, and I could die here, and I’d be happy.
Unfortunately life has to move on. We stayed for two nights in Manarola – the most photographed village in Cinque Terre, then took the last train to Genoa.
Genoa was somewhat surprising. I didn’t think much of Genoa. I knew that there was a UNESCO World Heritage over there and cheap flights fly to and from Genoa, which was why we passed it. Only when we arrived that I found out that the World Heritage was the chain of palaces along a small lane called Palazzi dei Rolli.
Lots of the palaces are open to public for free. We went there late in the afternoon and got to check out quite a few of them. I think a couple of the best and biggest ones need tickets, we didn’t go to those as it was late. Some palaces have become offices and shops. We came upon a couple of free performances of people singing and playing guitar.
We stumbled upon a cafe and had one of the best meal in Italy: condiments of focaccia, fried mozzarella, lasagna, fried chips, plus cocktail – all for £7.50 per person. After Venice especially, the meal was like breath of fresh air. A great meal to end a great journey.
UNESCO World Heritage visited in this trip:
- Venice and its Lagoon
- City of Verona
- Portovenere, Cinque Terre, and the Islands (Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto)
- Genoa: Le Strade Nuove and the system of the Palazzi dei Rolli
Church and Dominican Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie with “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci – in Milan
There are actually a couple more of World Heritage sites in Veneto province, between Venice and Verona. (The Botanical Garden in Padua is probably easy to go to as a side trip from either city.) But we couldn’t fit them within our 9 days trip.