March 8, 2016

LAST CALL: Italy

I always assumed I’d like Italy but, until I visited, I didn’t know that I’d love it so much. I dedicated a lot of my Schengen ration to exploring this beautiful country, and it was time well spent. However, because there was so much to see, I didn’t always have the time — or the energy — to share much more than photos. So, here’s a final mish-mash of experiences and observations:

  • This is just my take … but I think I picked the ideal time to visit, when the weather was mild and there were hardly any crowds. Having Rome’s Colosseum and Pantheon almost all to myself really made for a magical experience. The only crazy-crowded place was the Vatican Museum and the sea of people making their way to the Sistine Chapel. I cannot imagine what it must be like when it gets really crowded.
  • While the train system between cities in Italy is fantastic, assume you’ll do a lot of walking in each place you visit. Rome has a subway system, but it doesn’t always stop near the big attractions. Often, it’s faster to walk or easier to grab a cab.
  • I don’t always like staying in the heart of the touristy areas, but I would definitely recommend it in Italy, particularly during the low season. Since you’ll be doing so much walking, it’s nice to be close to the must-sees. If you’re not having to deal with high season crowds, it’s even better.
  • Crossing the street in Rome is terrifying! And fun! Some of the busiest crosswalks have no traffic lights or stop signs. Instead, there’s this kind of synchronized dance that occurs between drivers and pedestrians. Even though there are five lanes of traffic speeding toward them, people just cross, and somehow the cars either stop or weave around them. It’s crazy, but also kind of exhilarating to step off the curb and take that leap of faith. My best advice is to follow the locals and, whenever possible, cross when they do. Safety in numbers!
  • If you love coffee, you’ll love Italy and the chance to soak up its unique coffee culture. There are no Starbucks in Italy, and latte is the Italian word for milk. Coffee shops are small and intimate, and your morning Joe (or would that be Giuseppe?) isn’t typically ordered to go. More often than not, you’d order your coffee at the counter and drink it standing up without lingering for too long. Most espresso drinks don’t contain much (if any) milk, except for a cappuccino, which is something you’d only order before 11:00 a.m. If you’re on a train and ask for a coffee, you’ll get a small dixie-sized cup with a shot of espresso.
  • In Italy, you can eat fresh, delicious food for very little money. Particularly in Florence, it’s easy to pop into a tiny deli for a panino (sandwich) that’s big and yummy and about $4 USD. For that same amount of money can also buy some old school Florentine comfort food: a panino lampredotta made from the fourth stomach of the cow. Once a traditional peasant food, it’s now nose-to-tail trendy, and there are usually long lines at the food carts selling the sandwiches.
  • Florence’s Mercato Centrale (Central Market) is relatively new and very cool to visit. The ground floor is filled with stalls selling meat and poultry, fruit/veg, cheese, spices, and more. Upstairs, there are cooking classes, cooking shops, and various eateries selling coffee, wine, food and treats.
  • It’s my experience that anything really good is on top of a huge hill or up a lot of stairs, and that was definitely true it Italy. For instance, the 463 cramped and twisty steps to the top of Florence’s Duomo were killer … but so was the view from the top. Tough, but worth it!

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  • My first sit-down restaurant meal in Italy was in Milan at a restaurant called Belli Freschi. It was small with tables that were very close together. When I took my seat, the (solo) female customer next to me smiled and immediately said buongiorno! She explained the traditional Italian menu (with its multiple courses) and even ordered for me in Italian. The highlight of the meal was the course of mozzarella. It was so flavorful and gooey — it was a like a cheese sponge soaked in milk. It was so fresh. I was in Milan for two days, but I didn’t do anything else that was fun because I was sick. But not from the cheese!
  • My favorite pizza place was Florence’s Mangia Pizza. Not only was the pizza (more than a dozen choices) fantastic, the customer service was just as awesome. Since I dine solo, it really means a lot when the restaurant staff are kind and welcoming. Two young men run the show at Mangia, and they are so friendly and full of positive energy. I went there multiple times to try the different pizzas (all delizioso) and found that many of my neighbors at the counter were repeat customers too. I loved that place, and so did they!

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  • Italy is very clean! The only litter I ever noticed was … confetti. In fact, I noticed confetti in the pavement cracks of every Italian city I visited. What’s up with that? Even a Google search yielded no clues. Venice was the city that had the most litter, which consisted of … more confetti.

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  • This has never happened to me in any other country, but it happened three times in Italy, all in different cities. I was on a train, and a man with an accordion (a different man each time) entered the train car and started playing. I have a soft spot for street musicians and buskers, and it was cool to see that no one (including me!) could resist smiling at an accordionist playing a bouncy Italian tune.
  • I take travel guidebooks and forums with a grain of salt, but even locals warned me about pickpockets in Italy. When you buy a train ticket in the station at the TrenItalia machines, the first thing that pops up on the screen is a warning about pickpockets. Frankly, though, I didn’t have any problem at all. There were no unscrupulous cab drivers, no gangs of thieving children, no pickpockets, and nobody on a Vespa drive-by trying to steal my purse.
  • St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is massive and breathtakingly beautiful. The crowds can be massive too. It typically opens at 7:00 am., and that’s when I arrived. There was already a very long queue at the entrance that moved slowly because of airport-like security checks. However, when I left the basilica at 7:45 a.m., there was no queue. So I guess the best strategy is to arrive about 45 minutes after it opens.
  • You need a reservation to visit Rome’s Borghese Gallery, but that also means the amount of people touring this intimate museum is capped at any given time. I couldn’t stop looking at (what I considered to be) the highlight: the reclining Pauline Bonaparte by Antonio Canova. I was mesmerized by the folds in the marble “cushion” and how well they mimicked real cloth.

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  • For reasons I can’t explain, I also liked this giant foot. Maybe because it made my large hand look petite:

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  • The Borghese Gallery is situated on a sprawling piece of land with gardens that you can explore free of charge.

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  • I have to be really stingy with luggage space, but my one Italian splurge was some Acqua di Colonia that I bought at the famous Santa Maria Novella perfumery. You can also buy it in the states at Nordstrom where, IMO, it’s kind of expensive. Turns out, in Italy it’s just as expensive! But I figured it would remind me of Florence every time I wore it. The perfumery has a huge selection of scents, and I chose Eva which is described as “unisex” and “peppery.”

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  • If you like leather goods, particularly purses and murses, there are shops and markets everywhere in Florence selling made-in-Italy items. Other cities I visited sold them too, but not to the same degree.
  • I found the people of Italy to be warm, gregarious and helpful. I always try my best to be a good guest in other people’s countries, but I’m still — and will probably always be — a rumbling, bumbling, stumbling tourist. Nonetheless, people were always patient and kind, and I will always be grateful for that.

The only good thing about leaving Italy is being confident that I’ll be back some day. Rome is difficult to “do” in one trip, and I know that I’ll want to return to Florence. There’s also a long list of other cities that I’d love to explore. Now I understand why so many travelers choose to visit again and again.

So while it’s ciao for now, it’s not forever. ‘Til next time Italy!