Four years ago, I spent two glorious weeks in Italy. I remember the adventures clearly, full of the stereotypes that you often hear about the place – the streets of water in Venice, pizzas and pastas, coloured houses, lemon trees, olive groves, bell towers and famous artists. I drank Grappa and sipped on Limoncello. I loved the custom of having an aperitif in the afternoon sunlight – an alcoholic beverage, usually with some complimentary nibbles, to get the tastebuds rolling into dinner time. Italy is just as you would expect it to be – glamorous, artistic and delicious.
Arriving in Venice is like a dream. Even though I had seen photos and knew that the city was based on water, it is something different to see it in real life. I used to think this kind of thing existed only in the imagination, but I have come to see that the world is an incredible place. I met my friend at the train station and took a water-taxi to the stop closest to our hotel. It took some navigating the narrow alleys and bridges to find the place. Up a steep set of stairs, we found ourselves in a magical little Bed and Breakfast, simple, but perfect, for our first days in Italy. Each morning, we would help ourselves to an espresso, using the Italian coffee filter downstairs. Then, it would be time to explore!
Some memories that stood out are the visit to Piazza San Marco, the main city square, in which stands the famous St. Mark’s Basilica and a tall bell tower. After queuing up, we found ourselves at the very top of the bell tower, overlooking this extraordinary city. Surrounded by all the old architecture, you could easily imagine Italian merchants back in the day, coming to and fro by ship, trading their wares. The city exudes wealth and history.
I remember getting lost in the narrow cobbled laneways and coming across magical sights, such as a second-hand book shop, only accessible by water, over-flowing with literature. Another enjoyable discovery was a paper-making studio, where the kind gentleman let us watch his craft – first marbling the water, then carefully lying the paper on top and, finally, lifting it off to reveal a splendid pattern.
The Bridge of Sighs was another incredible sight. I was fascinated to learn on a tour that it is not named because of the lovers’ tradition of kissing beneath it in a gondola. Rather, the bridge linked the court rooms of the Doge’s Palace to the New Prison and, as the prisoners walked through the bridge to meet their fate, they would look out of the tiny window and sigh, taking their last breath of fresh air. Romantic visions are often fraught with gruesome, historic stories!
Burano and Murano
If the museums, shops and restaurants are becoming too much, you can always take a water taxi across to some of the islands. It costs no more than a regular trip to get to Burano and Murano, known for lace and glass-blowing respectively. Burano was my favourite island, with its brightly coloured buildings of red, green, blue, yellow, orange and pink. I also loved how people would hang their washing on the outside of their building, along with brightly coloured umbrellas, which had been left open to dry in the sun.
Cinque Terre was a breath of fresh air after the crowded streets of Venice. We stayed in the tiny town of Riomaggiore, the eastern most of the five ocean villages. Taking the train is a brilliant means of arrival. We approached the stop via a dark tunnel, before being let out on the very edge of the cliff, where the gusts of wind were strong and our breath was taken away by the ocean views. Riomaggiore is situated on a steep hill, with pastel-coloured houses all the way to the top and fishing boats moored in the harbour below. Small three wheeled trucks were parked on the street, as we hauled our backpacks and suitcases up the steep hill to our Bed and Breakfast.
We spend the next few days taking advantage of the walking trails between villages, feasting on limoncello, pizzas and pastas and trying out the gelato, well-earned after the treks, which often took us up steep pathways and through olive groves and orchards. On our first lengthy trek along the cliff top, we were caught unexpectedly in a storm – the rain poured down in torrents. Heavy thunder and the odd glimpse of lightning saw us running down the muddy, flooded pathway to the village below. Drenched, we got on the train back to our village and, after a changing out of our soaking clothes, headed down to the local pizzeria to warm up with a glass of limoncello and a nutella pizza!
Home to the famous composer, Puccini, Lucca is a beautiful town in the heart of Tuscany, brimming with music and historic charm. On arrival, you will notice the city is still surrounded by its thick, defensive walls, built in the 16th and 17th centuries and still intact after hundreds of years. One of my favourite things to do was walk along the footpath on top of the city walls, admiring the pretty views of Tuscany.
We really enjoyed climbing the 230 stairs to the very top of Torre Guinigi, a medieval tower in the centre of Lucca, which offered birds-eye views of the city. To add to the novelty, the tower had 7 Oak trees growing on top – quite an incredible sight!
We also enjoyed visiting Palazzo Pfanner, a 17th Century palace, with grand, baroque-style gardens, full of statues of Greek gods and potted lemon trees.
Of course, when you come to Lucca, you must visit the Casa di Puccini, house of the famous composer, who is famous for Madama Butterfly and Tosca, amongst other operas. You can pay a reasonable price to see opera performances in some of the local churches. In fact, we were also lucky enough to happen upon a free music concert one evening, after going for an aperitif at nearby restaurant.
Where do I begin? Siena was by far my favourite destination in Italy. My friend had already visited Florence on a previous trip, so we decided on Siena instead. In the heart of Tuscany, this town is full of history and mythology, which weaves its way into the architecture so magically, it makes you want to study Italian art, literature and languages. On our arrival, we caught some extremely long escalators to the top of the hill. Then, walking through the old city gates, we weaved our way through the cobbled streets to find our hotel.
This town is centred around the shell-shaped town square, or Piazza del Campo, which is famous for the Palio di Siena, a horse race held twice a year around the perimeter of the piazza. This race has been held since the early 1700s, but the piazza was long before used for other sporting events, such as boxing, jousting and bull fights. These days, tourists and locals alike can spend their time here, relaxing over picnics and drinks in the sunshine.
In the piazza, a tall bell tower towers above the town. At a small price, you can climb the narrow stair case right to the very top (be prepared to queue, as limited numbers are allowed on the final level). When you reach the rooftop, you will be presented with 360 degree views of the city and Tuscan countryside. My trip to the top coincided with the clock striking 1 pm. The noise was deafening, but I took this as a sign for good luck!
Perhaps my favourite and most astonishing discovery was the Siena Duomo (cathedral). It was astonishing simply because it was the most artistically-inspired, elaborate cathedral that I had yet seen. The exterior was completely covered in black and white horizontal stripes, which makes the building stand out all over the city. Inside the cathedral, I was most astounded to see the black and white stripes continue on the walls. Not only this, the ceilings were covered in gold-leaf and brightly coloured designs and the floors were tiled with equally elaborate mosaics. I could not imagine a more extravagant cathedral.
The last thing I will mention about Siena is its food! One day, as we were walking through town, it started to pour with rain. We escaped into a bakery to warm up with the most delicious hot chocolate – a thick syrup that heated us right down to our toes. Later that evening, at a different restaurant, we feasted on a three course meal – a platter of Italian cheeses and meats, thick ribbons of pappardelle pasta, with local wild boar, and a creamy Tiramisu, all washed down with a bottle of red wine. By the end of the meal, we felt like we had feasted with the gods -perhaps we had visited too many museums that day, but it all felt very magical!
Two days in the Italian capital is not nearly enough, but we did the best we could in the time available. I have never seen buildings on so grand a scale and with such ancient history! Anyone who has seen the movie Gladiator would be thrilled to walk around the Colosseum and see where these infamous competitions took place.
The Trevi fountain is an equally surreal experience, as is the Pantheon and the ruins of the Roman Forum (where all the major political decisions were discussed). It is simply incredible to see these large buildings and monuments with such history. Imagine the millions of people that have walked through these buildings and witnessed these sites over the hundreds and, sometimes, thousands of years. You can see how the Roman Empire spread their history all over Europe. They certainly had ambition, as well as the resources and brains to see through their plans!
The Vatican was how we spent our next morning, though we had not allowed enough time for this city in its own right. The crowds of tourists made navigating our way through to the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museum extremely tiresome. But we made it in the end and it was certainly worth it. By the time we made it back outside to the sunshine, I was simply overwhelmed with all the magnificent art. You really need time to appreciate it properly. We didn’t even get a chance to see inside St. Peters Basilica, but we were able to admire the cathedral from the outside.
That night, we feasted on Calzone (kind of like a pizza turn-over filled with oozing cheese) and a carafe of red wine. Rome had certainly left an impression, but I felt as though we had only just touched the surface. Nonetheless, it would have to wait for another time, as would the South of Italy.
As I learnt from the bar staff one evening, in a small restaurant in the seaside village of Riomaggiore, over a glass of Prosecco:
È troppo bello per essere vero!
It’s too beautiful to be true!