Saturday, 8 August 2015

An Italian Adventure

6 months of planning, preparing and waiting went very slowly. 2 weeks of travelling much more quickly. We wanted to see Italy: I'd only been to Rome before, my friends only Venice. But there is so much Italy, and so little time. After much deliberation we decided on:

Days 1:  Milan
Days 2-4: Lake Como
Days 5-7: Florence
Day 8: Naples
Days 9-10: Rome
Days 11-14: Catania, Sicily 

It was a bit of a whistle stop tour of all 6 places, but a fun one. I'm going to try and give you a snapshot of each, mainly because that's all we had, with the best bits, the worst and my recommendations. 


MILAN
Destination uno: left with very mixed thoughts. It was fine, but just fine, I'm not writing it off but I'm in no rush to go back. 

Best of Milan: The Duomo di Milano was extremely impressive. Unfortunately we weren't dressed appropriately enough to go in (it was way to hot for sleeves and trousers!), but it was beautiful. It, of course, dominated the main piazza but I was a little disappointed by what else was there - or not there, as the case may be. I was also surprised to see a castle in the centre of Milan: the Sforza Castle, which looks a lot like Fort Boyard and not very Milanese. Originally built in the 14th century, the castle was restored in the early 20th century so there's definitely a very stoic, and still operational feel to it. Definitely worth a visit if you're in Milan! 

Worst of Milan: The hotel we stayed in, Hotel Adelchi, was pretty dire and has definitely tainted my memory of Milan! With no air conditioning on our first night, and temperatures at night exceeding 30°c, it was pretty uncomfortable. The heat soared up to 40°c in the daytime in Milan which made it difficult to walk around, do much, or enjoy very much. Much of the day was spent looking for shade, cold drinks and air conditioning! I generally disappointed with the lack of character in Milan. I knew it was an Italian business centre, but anticipated that the city would exude the creativity and flare it's known for through its fashion. It didn't really, remaining very systematic. I imagine it would be like going on holiday to Reading would be like, but sweatier. 

Cool things I learnt in Milan: the Italian army wear feathers in their hats; they all look like Robin Hood. They have outlet stores for sweets. A disproportionate proportion of its residents have horrific tattoos. 




LAKE COMO
Destination due: I loved Como. It was beautiful; the weather was perfect; and there was so much to do but it was the ideal place to do nothing. We stayed in Carate Urio, about 6km north of Como - and 40 minute boat trip, and spent a day in Como town. I left feeling like there was so much exploring still to be done, and I can't wait to go back one day. 

Best of Como: Como town was lovely, full of restaurants, ice cream parlours and quirky shops, it felt like a real 'holiday town'. There was a real mix of holidayers here too: lots of older couples, but also families and younger groups like us! It felt very safe and friendly, like the perfect, relaxed holiday destination. Carate Urio, where we stayed, was slightly more remote. We rented a beautiful Air B&B villa with its own lakeside garden, and steps down into the lake. It was the ideal location to spend a few days with friends, relaxing in the villa, lounging by the lake, swimming, cooking, and the odd game of Beer Pong! I loved that it was so peaceful, that we had plenty of space to ourselves, and that we could swim and lay in the sun without all of the people/sand/wind/faff of the beach! On our last night in Como, there was a huge thunderstorm and we all just stood at our bedroom windows, listening to the thunder and watching the lightning illuminate the mountains. It was pretty extraordinary. 

Worst of Como: the 'exclusivity' was something to be both admired and annoyed by. It was amazing to be surrounded by such a magnificent natural and constructed landscape, but at the same time, it's stupid when you can't hang your washing up for fear of tainting the aesthetics of the house. Oh, and the trains. I think we were quite unlucky, but we had a bit of a nightmare with outward trains - cancelled trains, signalling problems, missing connections. Chaos! 

Cool things I learnt in Como: takeaway pizza in Como (and probably Italy more generally) is the tastiest thing you've ever put in your mouth. You can cut a hole in a watermelon, blend the inside, and drink it - but there's a lot of juice, even for 6 people. The millionaires from 'The Millionaire Matchmaker' holiday there; we were on the boat ride with one. 



FLORENCE
Destination tre: Florence was on par with Como in the competition for my favourite part of the holiday. I knew there was plenty to do in Florence, but I think that it's a common misconception that it's all art - and it definitely isn't. Florence felt very calm and laid back, despite the huge number of tourists, and this made it really enjoyable to be in. 

Best of Florence: My favourite memory of Florence was the hotel we stayed in: Soggiorno Livi. We were all a bit uncertain since it was pretty well hidden, and the front door just looked like the front of an apartment block. But we were welcomed by a fairly elderly, eccentric, excitable Italian woman; she didn't speak a word of English but told and showed us everything we needed to know through rigorous pointing and hilarious gestures. The hotel felt very traditionally Italian, much like staying in an Italian grandma's house! We also had some of the best food in Florence. There seemed to be a lot more meat, and variety from pasta and pizza, and we had 2 tasty meals (the first tastier than the second) at Trattoria Antellesi, an Italian steakhouse.  Florence was also the best city we visited for just wandering. It was cooler than other cities, with a lovely breeze, and there was so much to see in the way of architecture, sculptures, shops, churches, palaces just from aimlessly walking. We were also really impressed by the street art in Florence; it was everywhere, but it was clever and seemed to tell little stories. It was all the little things like this that gave Florence so much character, and made it just an interesting city to visit. 

Worst of Florence: tourists. American tourists. Everywhere. Having mundane discussions about which fast food they'd give up first if they absolutely had to. Our 2 full days in Florence were, unfortunately, a Sunday and Monday - the two days of the week in which things close. It was a real shame because we probably would have seen lots more if things had been open. 

Cool things I learnt in Florence: they have lots of elaborate door handles, many of which have faces on. There's a lot of wild boar on restaurant menus. There's also a lot of art and sculpture relating to Greek mythology, which is all really interesting and creative.  



ROME
Destination quattro: I was really sad to be leaving Florence, but glad that we were moving on to Rome. I'd been to Rome once before, aged 13/14, and had great memories of it. Once again, Rome did not disappoint. It's such a varied, fascinating city with so much to offer - I only wish we'd had more time to make the most of it.  

Best of Rome: Rome is the city to be an avid tourist in. Day 1 was reserved for the Vatican, and day 2 the Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Piazza Venizia. Nothing beats the sights of Rome. I'd expected them to be crippled with tourists and was surprised at how (relatively) quiet it was. Returning to the Colosseum was probably my favourite sight: there's something about being there that makes you feel like you're really being transported back and getting a true taste of ancient Rome. I also loved wandering in Rome. Since our hotel was a bit of a way out, in the Trastevere district, we enjoyed a 45 minute walk to the Vatican, encountering beautiful views on the way, and a much more relaxed, ice cream fuelled wander home from Palatine Hill the next day. 

Worst of Rome: The Trevi Fountain was closed for restoration. STILL. I'd seen friends' disappointing pictures of the fountain months before our visit, and was hoping it would be finished in time for us. Alas not. 

Cool things I learnt in Rome: The Vatican has a post office from which you can send Pope-themed postcards. There's a lot of coconut water. Also more selfie sticks than I've ever seen in my life. Everyone drives a Fiat. You can basically drive wherever you want, there don't seem to be any formal lanes or lines on the road. 





NAPLES
Destination cinque: It's probably not fair to give a review of Naples because we didn't see enough of it or spend long enough there...even though it felt like the longest day of my life. Our stop in Naples was simply practical: to catch the ferry to Sicily. 

Best of Naples: My memories of Naples are not fond. I'd never heard anything positive about Naples, but it was worse than I'd anticipated. The best thing about it was the train we got to Naples: somehow we'd managed to bag ourselves a private train cabin, with free drinks and snacks. It was shame the journey was only an hour long!

Worst of Naples: It was like stepping off the train into a third world country. It was bizarre. Admittedly, we didn't venture into the centre of Naples, but headed straight in the direction of the ferry port. Here we waited for 10 hours. Mostly in a cafe in a car park. Also on the pavement for 2 hours outside the ferry whilst we waited to be allowed on. In this time I read a book about UFOs and Alien porn. It wasn't a day I wish to repeat. It was followed by a night on a ferry that I also don't wish to repeat. 

Cool things I learnt in Naples: There's an enormous, beautiful building at the ferry port with a view of Vesuvius (but it has nothing in it apart from a few tacky tourist shops). 


CATANIA
Destination sei: Although we spent the longest amount of time in Catania, it's the place I feel like I know the least about. The combination of it being really hot there, Simon being in bed for a couple of days with food poisoning, and having a lovely apartment (another Air B&B win!) that we could just chill in meant that we didn't get up to too much exploring. 

Best of Catania: On our final day we took a tour of Catania on a miniature train (well, it was more like a bus that looked like a train), visiting the main sights of the city. It was only €5 and took us to the amphitheatre ruins, the cathedral, the Bellini Gardens, and past one of the largest churches in Italy. Whilst some of the commentary couldn't be heard over the noise of the train, it was a really nice way to be able to see quite a bit of the city it was too hot to walk around! Another thing we noticed was how cheap everything was in Catania: we're talking €5-7 for a pasta dish! We ended up eating in quite a bit since Simon wasn't well, and buying and cooking our own food, but it was great to have so many other inexpensive options as well. Although totally unintentional, we ended up getting the ferry to the wrong side of the island - and then had to spend over 3 hours on a coach to get from Palermo to Catania. By that point, we'd been travelling for over 20 hours and I wasn't looking forward to it - but actually really enjoyed the coach ride. It took us by the sea, across mountains, and we actually had the chance to see some amazing views. 

Worst of Catania: It was pretty hot which spoilt the trip for us a bit - but that wasn't Catania's fault, but ours for going there in August. It was also a shame that the nearest beach to the city is right next to the port and therefore, it's recommended, too polluted to swim. Had we known this, we probably would have stayed further down the coast, closer to Syracuse where the beaches are absolutely beautiful. I also couldn't find an ATM in Catania that would let me take out money without an Italian bank card; the only option was to go into the bank, with your card and passport, and take out a minimum of €50 at a time. 

Cool things I learnt in Catania: Spending 10 hours at an airport isn't as bad as you think it might be. You can't buy alcohol/cigarettes/things with duty on them from Catania airport if you're an EU citizen. They called Mount Etna 'Enna'. They put pistachios on pizza. 



So then it was time to say ciao to Italia! It was a really fun 2 weeks - slightly chaotic and frustrating at times, and very sweaty most of the time, but we got to see a lot of amazing places in a really short space of time. If I were to do this trip again, I'd probably do it over 3 weeks instead of 2; miss out Milan; spend longer in Como and Rome; try and make it across to Verona and Venice; stay somewhere different in Sicily, with a pool or lovely beaches; and book up some of the popular sights (i.e. galleries in Florence) in advance. But all in all, we had a lovely time. Now on to planning the next adventure....



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