Welcome back to another reminisce episode of Traveling With Tom. The last few weeks, I’ve written posts on previous travel to Scotland and England. This week, as I recover from a surgery, I take you to Italy. Another of our favorite places to visit.
Our first trip to Italy was in 2007 when The Youngest was studying abroad in Italy at the University of Udine (pronounced ooh din a) in the northern eastern city of Udine. She spent the year studying food science and brushing up on the Italian language.
We arrived at the Venice airport from Frankfurt on a cool, quiet Sunday morning. The sun was shining and the blue sky featured a few poofy clouds. We were tired from our sleepless overnight flight and long layover but The Youngest was determined to keep us moving. After stowing our bags at the small, local hotel in Marghera on the mainland, we walked to the train station for our short ride over to Venice. It’s less expensive and much quieter to stay on the mainland then in Venice proper.
Soon we were admiring the canals, bridges, and the calli (pedestrian streets) that connect the city. There were lots tourists, Venice is very popular for its uniqueness and beauty. I can’t disagree but it is crowded, tourism is their lifeblood.
During our couple of days, we toured Saint Mark’s Basilica, walked the Rialto Bridge, and rode on a water bus (cheaper than a water taxi or a gondola ride). We had lunch in an out of the way cafe and had our first taste of gelato. It wouldn’t be our last.
The people watching in Venice is hard to beat as people from all over the world converge on this famous city. While I liked Venice, I’ve checked it off my bucket list, it’s too touristy and crowded for my tastes.
The train from Venice to Rome easily covered the distance of 325 miles in a bit over four hours. This is where I vowed to pack much lighter on future international trips, nothing larger than a carryon sized bag and my camera bag. No more lugging large and heavy suitcases on and off planes, trains, and buses. It has served me well!
Upon arrival, we checked in the apartment my Traveling Partner found on line through Cross-Pollinate. They offer apartments and B and B’s in most large European cities. I recommend them. Our apartment was in a great location, the international section near the main train station. There are great restaurants and a large marketplace nearby.
We loved everything about Rome. We’d heard some stories of the petty crime, the litter, traffic, and smoggy air. We saw none of that. However, we were careful about the space around us as we walked the streets and rode the subway.
Prior to our departure, my Traveling Partner arranged for us to attend the audience with the Pope that is held every Wednesday he is in town. Our tickets for the audience were at the Pontifical North American College near the famous Trevi Fountain. When we picked them up, the nun told us where to go, St. Peter’s Square, and when to get there for a good seat. She said security opens at 7:30 AM, get there early, and then “run like hell after clearing security!” My Traveling Partner is a good Catholic so followed her instructions to a t. As a result, we scored a seat in the front row of the estimated 25,000 that attended that day. It was certainly worth the early wake up and hustle to get to the Vatican. Here are a few photos for our “audience with Pope Benedict.”
One of the guards was giving me the stink eye prior to the appearance by the Pope.
After the audience, we toured St. Peter’s. I paid for an entrance ticket to climb the cupola. It was worth the price of admission. I took this photo of the apostles, one of my favorites from the trip.
During our stay, we toured the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel. We lingered and sat on the benches along the side taking in the works of Michelangelo, Botticelli, Rosselli, and others. It’s a stunning site to see. This is where the church cardinals pick the new pope when one dies or resigns. No photos are allowed.
While in Rome, we visited the Colosseum, the Pantheon, Villa Borghese Gardens, and the Roman Forum. We enjoyed walking the streets and finding a little hole in the wall cafe for a quick lunch or dinner. Four days was not enough time and we vowed to return someday. It hasn’t happened, yet!
Our next destination in Italy was the grand city of Florence in the Tuscany region of central Italy. The birthplace of the Renaissance, when Europe left the Middle Ages behind and entered the modern era. Florence became the artistic and cultural center of Italy and southern Europe. Today, it’s a city of nearly 400,000 people and lots of tourists that come to take in the art, culture, and ambiance of the city and region. So it can be crowded especially on weekends and holidays. We happened to be there on Palm Sunday. We attended services at the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower, commonly known as the Duomo. This photo was taken with a telephone lens from the Fiesole Hills just outside of Florence.
Another well known site in Florence is the Ponte Vecchio, the medieval bridge across the Arno River. The photos below offer two views.
We had a few open days in our travel plans so decided to visit Cinque Terre. The train passed through the city of Pisa so we arranged to disembark, stow our bags, and walk into town to see the Leaning Tower, an iconic symbol of Italy. We were all a little skeptical that it was just a tourist trap and wondered if it was worth the time. It definitely was!
It’s about a mile or twenty minute walk from the train station to the Pisa Cathedral where the freestanding bell tower leans. It’s quite a site behold. The Tower leans over 5 degrees which doesn’t sound like much but it’s a big building and it weighs a lot. However, this Tower has been leaning since the 12th century due to soft ground. I was game to climb the tower, however, entry requires a timed ticket and there weren’t any available before our next train. While there are lots of souvenir kiosks nearby we avoided those and spent our time visiting the cathedral and gawking at the site. I recommend at least a short visit to this iconic site.
Back on the train, we relaxed until reaching the port city of La Spezia. This is the largest town near Cinque Terre our ultimate destination.
La Spezia has about 100,000 inhabitants and is the second largest port on the Ligurian Sea. We booked into a hotel near the train station and asked the staff for dinner recommendations. They sent us down the long wide promenade that ends at the waterfront. There were lots of restaurant choices facing the promenade. As the sun began to set, the promenade began to fill with families strolling along, window shopping, and stopping to chat with friends. We thought it was so nice on the pleasant evening. It was Easter week, this chalk artist was creating a masterpiece on the stones of the promenade. People were rewarding his work by tossing coins on the art.
The next two days, we spent visiting Cinque Terre, meaning five lands. In this case, five UNESCO World Heritage Site villages that cling to the steep hillsides leading to the Ligurian Sea. Boats or trains are the only way to see the villages up close. There are car parks but the walk into the village and back again is quite a trek in the rugged terrain. Trains drop passengers close to the village with only a short walk into town. The villages are so quaint and picturesque, it is my very favorite part of Italy. A few years ago, torrential rains inundated the area that caused mud slides and lots of damage.
The villages are so close, often with a mile or two, that it’s easy to walk from village to village. On our walks, we passed vineyards and orchards. One enterprising fellow was selling oranges, lemon cello, wine, and bottled water by the side of the trail. We were thirsty and ready for a snack. The water and oranges were particularly tasty as we refreshed on the side of the trail. I would have tried his homemade limoncello but didn’t want to get tipsy and fall hundreds of feet down the steep hillside!
It was a grand time. Here are a few of my photos from our few days in the area.
These fellas were sitting in the piazza watching the tourists stream through their village. I couldn’t resist a photo, I got two shots off before I walked away. I wonder what they are talking about. Make up a story and post it here! Another of my favorites from Italy.
Final words on Cinque Terre, go there! But make a plan and learn why it’s so special. Also find a time when the crowds are at their smallest.
From La Spezia we took the train back to Venice and then on to Udine where we spent Easter weekend. We went to a small church within walking distance of The Youngest’s apartment. We met her four roommates and had Easter dinner with her two Irish friends. After a quick trip up to Salzburg, Austria, my Traveling Partner and I boarded the plane for the long flight back to the U. S. We were exhausted but so filled with memories of our three weeks in Italy. Unfortunately, it was back to work on Monday!
Next up, Arles, France.
Until then, happy travels!