Italy – that elusive dream that finally became reality for me. I did a 10 day trip (Aug 2016) with my sister and as it always is, the reality was fairly different from what I had imagined it to be. As the saying goes in Italy – its not what you find, but what you find out.
I’ll start with the boring details first:
Prepping for the trip:
VISA: An unfortunate requirement to travel – the visa documents. From Bangalore VFS handles the visa on behalf of the Italian Consulate General of Mumbai. They have a page on the documents required: http://www.vfs-italy.co.in/mumbai/tourist_documentsrequired.html . This is fairly straightforward, and they did not ask me for anything in addition to this – except for an address proof. The bank statements required are original and to be stamped by the banks. I would say do not bother to go through a travel agent, as it was fairly simple. I got my euros (for 10 days I needed to show around 500 Euro) from Cox and Kings – they home delivered it to me in exchange for Rs. Gave me a good rate too. I would say that while one is getting the 500 Euro – its better to buy more, as I found that in Italy, cash is the way to go. You get better rates (some hotels give you a discount if you pay in cash) and it is more convenient in stores, cabs, restaurants etc.
FLIGHTS: For the visa, one needs to have booked the flights and hotels, so while flights are easier, for hotels, I would recommend booking any hotel in Rome for 10 days with a refundable rate (check some of the accor hotels) till the visa comes through. Flights – we booked air india and had no complaints with the airline. Infact it was quite an enjoyable journey. Air india booking site here : http://www.airindia.in/
LANGUAGE: Yes I actually took Italian lessons before going to Italy! It was just a way to be able to get to know the culture better, and I think it was a very interesting thing to do. However, having learnt Spanish, the language was very easy to pick up, but for a first timer, this might be a stretch in levels of enthusiasm. My lovely teacher Maria (contact her at +91 9980093370) sent me some informative videos which were just as useful as understanding the language. I would highly recommend that one watch these before traveling:
About eating in Italy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjFt3cU7CEY
About getting conned in Italy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kLrB1RsqcQc
About dressing in Italy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtdBj5X3-3c
BOOKS: I bought both Lonely Planet and the Rick Steves book, and I personally liked the Rick Steves book better, although the most useful thing was the Rick Steve’s audioguide- which has a wealth of walking tours, museum tours etc all available for free.
I found that it is much better to have a tightly scheduled trip planned and pre- booked in advance as that saves one time while on holiday. Hotels, trains, excursions, museums etc. You also get infinitely better rates and options. The earlier the better. However, try and get refundable options as those are also available in plenty.
HOTELS: For hotels, I found all my hotels on booking.com to give me the best rates. Sometimes I booked directly with the hotel, after seeing their rates on these agent sites online, and asked them to match it for me.
Things to be careful about on booking.com,
1. They don’t mention that most of the cheaper rooms are without a view. Which means that one might be facing a garage or a construction site. Not ideal. So what I did was, I always called the hotel and checked with them first, or paid the hotel a little bit extra for the room with the view.
2. The hotels sometimes charge a deposit without informing you. Which is then a pain to get a refund of. So check with the hotel about this again.
3. Other things to watch out for in general in Europe – check for elevators, aircons, accessibly by taxi, noise levels, as these are not things one can take for granted.
Rome: We booked hotel Mama’s Home Rome and paid 100 Euro a night during peak season – Booked directly with them and paid cash at the hotel. I would definitely stay there again. A small hotel bang on Campo De Fiori – a plaza where the fresh produce market is set up every morning, 5 min from Piazza Navona. The hotel has a small (closet size) elevator, large-ish air conditioned quiet rooms, and is accessible by taxi. The owners – Marzio and Erica are genuinely nice people (though not available at the reception always). They sent me a transfer to the airport which was excellent. It was an Audi with a very sweet cabbie (a rarity in rome). Breakfast is included although it was a humble coffee and croissant at a cafe in the plaza called Obica. Best coffee and croissant ever. Another advantage was that there was a shopping street called Via Giubbani (I’m sure I have the spelling wrong) with lots of nice little boutiques (which were affordable).
Book with Marzio at +39 335 437211
Florence: We booked Hotel Garibaldi Blu – excellent hotel, nowhere near the 3 stars it is currently rated at, it deserves atleast a 4 star. They had turnaround service, elevators, bell boys, a breakfast spread, and located well, just a 5 min walk from the Santa Maria Novella train station. The room was large (we booked a deluxe) and paid around 130 Euro a night, booked and paid in advance through booking.com and had no trouble. However, we had a room with no view at all, despite requesting for one, and there was some construction sound in the room during the day.
Venice: We stayed at Hotel Anastasia, an annexe of the bigger Hotel Violono d Oro. We paid 160 Euro a night. This was our most expensive and most disappointing hotel in our trip. Tiny, although it had an elevator, and was well located, a 3 min walk from the St Marks square. They charged me pre-booking fee without notifying me which caused me a lot of trouble. The receptionist was a rude condescending lady who did not really help me with my issue. The bank blocked my card, and I couldn’t get a new card in time for the trip, having to borrow my dad’s credit card. Would not recommend this to anyone.
TRAINS & TOURS
We booked all our train rides with italiarail.com – a site I would highly recommend because we got business class seats at great deals, and got a discount for the membership of Italiapass (19 Euro instead of 50 Euro), which was very useful. We booked all our excursions with Italiapass and got great discounts, and great tour companies to guide us. You can print out your train tickets and just show this to the TT when he comes around to check during the journey. No other physical tickets required.
Rome: Termini Station is the closest to the city center, costs around 15 Euro by cab to the city.
Florence: Santa Maria Novella Station is in the city center. One can either walk to the hotel or cabs are available in the taxi stand.
Venice: Santa Lucia Station. To go to St marks square, take Bus no 1 or 2 (2 is faster).
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
Ah it was finally the day to travel and we couldn’t be more excited. I had an excellent flight schedule, leaving Bangalore at 10 am, to arrive at Delhi at 12.30 noon to connect to Rome at 2.30 pm. 3 movies later, we reached Rome FCO airport at 8 pm, and the city at 9 pm, just in time for dinner. Our cabbie gave a rough lowdown on the sites on the way to the hotel and we were already starstruck. Huge monuments enchantingly lit, cobbled roads, stone and brick everywhere. The tales of Roman warriors, Pagan gods, Ceasars, Emperors and Christian folklore was beckoning from every corner, waiting to be told. Our first impression was that we could spend a year in Rome and still not satisfactorily cover all the stories we wanted to unfold.
We arrived at our hotel, a modern clean hotel right on the plaza, and were happy to dump our bags and head straight out.
In all our touristy naivety and enthusiasm we settled down to eat in one of the restaurants in the Piazza (plaza) Campo Di Fiori and the waiter convinced us that we should try a Roman Pizza. It was god-awful. We learnt 2 lessons from this – that don’t take it for granted that Pizzas have tomato based sauce as a base, and try to stay away from the Plazas while picking a place to dine. As we learnt from experience – the small family run hole in the wall Osterias and Trattorias tucked away in little lanes have the best food. However, just dining at the Piazza sipping on our proseco was hugely exciting, and we couldn’t wait for the next day to arrive, to look at Rome by daylight.
St Peters Basilica and the Vatican Museums.
We booked our tour with Italiapass, who in turn booked it with a local company called Dark Rome/City Wonder. Our tour guide was this knowledgable enthusiastic lady called Barbara. We were apprehensive to have booked a 3 hour tour thinking that it would be a drag, but believe me, at the Vatican, in 3 hours, you cannot even scratch the surface. The art is mesmerising, the grandeur, the architecture and the stories transport you to another era. I say this for all the guided tours we did – each time we felt like little kids being told stories, and then being able to see and touch and be present in remnants of that era – the experience was nothing short of Surreal. You forget about the heat, the throngs of tourists, that nagging back ache and the fact that its lunch time. You have for those few hours, slipped on a cloak and been teleported to another dimension.
I would like to mention here that one must book the Vatican tour as early as possible, because at times they get sold a week in advance. It was helpful to book with City Wonder as they had an option to skip the line – which saved us standing in a line for 2 hours in the blazing sun.
Booking link here: https://www.italiapass.com/activity/?things-city=catalog%2F88565%2Fthings-to-do-in-rome
Coliseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill
We were told before we went that this was not worth a tour, and we didnt end up booking this in advance. However, the ruins beckoned and we decided to show up last min only to see a massive long line under a hellishly hot sun. Not wanting to get roasted, we decided to approach a Bangladeshi tout who was selling a last min guided tour illegally (Gladiator Tours – highly recommended). We thought that this was us agreeing to get robbed in broad daylight, but how we were wrong! It was the highlight of our trip. While it wasn’t a skip the line tour (as promised), the guide pulled some strings and got us through quickly. We had this small super enthusiastic lady with only 4 of us in the group and how brilliantly she told the stories. She had this little book which had OHP sheets to overlay what the architecture used to be, on top of the ruins as you see them today. It was by sunset that we did this tour, and it was magical. Stories of Caesar’s Palace, the Vestal Virgins, the ingenious architecture, the lavish lifestyle, the gladiators, the story of Romulus and Remus, the parallels between Christianity and Pagan Folklore, (romulus kills remus, cane kills abel), the Temples, the Churches build over temples, the gardens, fountains etc, it was a kaleidoscope of information. Like doing a art history course at the speed of light. Everything you see, touch, savor, leaves you longing for more, to be in that story a little while longer.
Piazza Venezia is the historic center of Rome, what they call Centro Storico. It is where the Coliseum stands. Despite having done a crazy amount of research, somehow we were unaware of this. So this delightful and massive square was a splendid surprise to encounter at dusk after our tour of the Coliseum. We hung around, took selfies and tried to catch its splendor in vain. Saw a bunch of people of segways slide by and wished that we had also time to indulge.
While looking for that elusive perfect trattoria (and a public restroom) we encountered the trevi fountain suddenly while wandering the streets of Rome! While it looks nothing like what one imagines, its majesty is undeniable.
We did the pantheon with Rick Steve’s Audioguide, and it was an excellent self tour. A marvellous feat of architecture, and a testament to an era of polytheism in Italy, it is a must see.
This again was a last min decision (we decided that morning) – although we were very lucky that slots were available for us to visit. A reservation is mandatory at Villa Borghese, you cannot just show up, they will not entertain you. They have english guided tours done by the museum itself, something we could not get access too since we booked last min. However, we got audioguides, which were also fantastic. If you do decide to do this, be warned that NO possessions are allowed in the gallery. No purses, no water, no money, nothing. Only your phone, without flash, and in silent mode. You have to deposit everything with the lockers, and be prepared to wait in life for half hour just to deposit your things.
Villa Borghese is a private collection of Reverand Scipioni Borghese, a nephew to the pope and an avid collector of Art. Caravaggios, Berninis, Raphallos, the Galleria Borghese is Rome’s answer to the Uffizi in Florence. For me – it was the audioguide that made the paintings come alive. Otherwise with the visual overload that Italy offers you, they are just renaissance pictures, making no impression till you are led to observe the cryptic details. Having studied Caravaggio’s paintings in one of my art courses, it was a pilgrimage for me, however, I discovered other artists that really touched a chord. Bernini’s Dephne and Apollo – a vision in marble I will not forget easily.Booking info – call +39 06 0608
What I admire most is the honesty of the audio/tour guides. The sometimes treacherous means of acquisition of art, through extortion, through compulsion, they paint a non sugar coated picture of their historic figures. The popes are definitely not spared either, and in context, one learns of their follies and fallacies, their role as political leaders and not necessarily solely spiritual commanders. The struggle to establish Christianity, amidst the Romans who were primarily pagan, the ill-treatment of Jewish slaves, the brutality of the rulers, the raiding and stealing of ancient Egyptian artifacts to decorate the churches. The struggle of artists to seek truth through their art. The pursuit of beauty, the perception of beauty of the perfect human form, and the position of artists, above patrons and saints, and the recognition of their genius.
An enchanting ancient roman neighbourhood on the other side of the River. We did the Rick Steves audioguide for this one (which starts on the bridge across the Tiber) and it was engaging, informative and fun. The candle lit cafes and piazzas we came across here were really special, although some of the cafes did not entertain us when we said we just wanted an evening aperitif. Dinner was mandatory. A must visit, and plan to have dinner in the area.
Restaurants worth mentioning:
Obica (where we also had the free breakfast) was excellent. Modern, friendly chaps, great ingredients, and their pizza was the best we had in Italy.
Quercha: A family run osteria close to campo de fiori. The truffle picino was fantastic. However the servers are a bit uppity. Not a touristy place, more like a hidden place where the locals dine.
We were already very impressed with the Roman sights, but arriving in Florence made us forget about Rome. A city prettier than Rome, it gives one the feeling of going back in time. A walking city, the European historical capital of fashion, full of gelaterias, paticcerias, and osterias. Delightful, delicious and a bit painful as soon as one looks at the price of that cashmere trenchcoat beckoning one from the window. 4 days here was just the perfect amount of time, with 1 day to leisurely hang around the Arno river, visit the shops and sip on prosecco by the duomo.
Having arrived in the afternoon, we booked a 6 pm bicycle tour of the riverside city and it was spellbinding. There is a certain magic in the air at sundown. It feels like time has stopped its ticking, for just a second, and the sight you see in front of you, is a painting, not reality. We booked with a co. called Florencetown, again through our trusty Italiapass. It was the perfect way to orient ourselves to the city, as the guide takes you through all the worthy neighbourhoods, with her enchanting stories. Just to give you an example, while biking through an ordinary looking street, she casually points out Leonardo Da Vincis residence of 20 years, a man exiled from Florence because of his notorious paedophilia. He was a 35 year old man living with an 11 year old boy. Him and all his artwork were sent packing from Italy, and he was adopted and patronised by the french. While I stood there starstruck with this information, standing on the porch of Da vinci’s house, it was so casually told, because in Florence, every brick, every nook, every fountain is made up of historical stories like this.
Why is Florence so special? Because is the city of the birthplace of the renaissance. For the uninitiated, what is the renaissance? It is a period when artists started to see beauty in nature. Having moved from Paganism to Christianity, it was no longer a practice to worship mother nature. So the renaissance was a re-found interest in the beauty of nature, especially the human form. However, it was not in contrast to the church, instead, under the patronage of it. For the first time we saw human forms being given to stories from the bible, inspiring Michealangelo of florence, to paint the remarkable ceiling of the sistine chapel. A little bit of trivia here – Michealangelo was primarily a sculptor, so if one sees his paintings, they always highlight the physique of the figures, as he could never break away from sculpture. So in effect, his paintings were sculptures in 2D!
One of the worlds most prestigious galleries, this one is a must do. All 4 namesakes of the Ninja Turtles – Michaelangelo, Donatello, Raphaello, and Leonardo make an appearance here, and paintings that one has seen in magazines, posters and in fleeting daydreams are all here.
Booking link: http://www.b-ticket.com/b-ticket/uffizi/venue.aspx (this is the cheapest way to book tickets as it is directly through the museum. However, if you want at private tour, then you have to book elsewhere)
A smaller gallery than the Uffizi, one should make a trip here just to marvel at Michaelangelo’s famous sculture David, and his other works, often incomplete, giving one an insight into his process and his genius.
Book both of the above way in advance, preferably with guided tours that skip the line. Our guide from Florencetown was more than excellent. She was a history professor at the local university.
A day trip on a vespa from Florence, this was my initiation into the vineyards, the cellars, and the blazing tuscan sun. Another hour more, and I could have been served for lunch as roast, al dente, as the Italians like it. While the vespa could be given a miss, the journey itself is interesting, riding through rolling hills, and tasting the sweet berry like grapes which makes the delicious Chianti Wine. Just avoid any bottle made in 2014, as its not their best lot.
Booking link: http://www.florencetown.com/ or through the Italiapass website – use whatever is cheaper, they are the same tour. Please note, that if you book 1 tour through Florencetown, they give you discount coupons for the next tour you book with them, so call them and ask them for that code.
Dont let the word BUS fool you here – these are ferries (called vaporettos), an extremely exciting ride for us, as it was the first of its kind, a waterbus ferrying you through the city! The bus station is right out side the station, and tickets are 7.5 Euro each, and don’t forget to validate your ticket before entering (swipe it on this round yellow board at the entrance to boarding) or you will be fined. Just thinking about this ferry makes my brain sway a bit with nostalgia. One can also take a water taxi, a more swanky way to travel, which costs 80 Euro.
The humble water bus ride already had my eyes pop at amazement at this unique city with palaces lining the Grand Canal, their equivalent of the highway. From the first Aman hotel (where Georgy and Amal held their reception) to Custom houses to the Palace of the Doges, the Grand canal is a spectacle. While sailing in the bus, one feels immersed in a Francis Coppola period film with visions of Marco Polo’s voyages to the east, Mafiosos smoking cigars planning their next millions, Shady gondoliers exchanging furtive messages,Vendors selling their loot in a bustling trading port with goods coming in from Constantinople to China. This is what the first immigrants must have felt like coming to Venice, standing on a crowded ferry with luggage in tow, landing in Europe to sell one’s ware and explore its charms.
We only had a day and a half in Venice, so to get an overview(literally) of the place, we went up the clock tower and rented their audioguide to give us an insight into the islands. A 1 hour tour, this is a wonderful way to explore the city for lazy people like us, standing stationary and looking out the window. While the Murano and Burano islands are recommended for the Glass Blowing and Lace Making factories, we decided to explore the main San Marco island just walking around and going wherever our fancy took us. We also did the Gondola ride which is very steep, and not at all worth the price (80 Euro for a half hour lazy river ride) but Venice is a place where one tends to allow oneself to overpay for everything, just for the novelty of the experience.
The Venice International Film festival was starting the day we left, so we decided to take a 30 min vaporetto ride down to Lido to try and spot some celebs and go to the beach. Alas, a 5 min from from the station toward the beach and we discovered an Indian restaurant which made us ditch our plans and eat some aloo gobi instead. However, Lido seemed really charming. Very different from an ancient grotty San Marco, Lido was a modern european town, with pretty little canals on the edges, with little boats parked everywhere.
|Ride to Lido
While booking the hotel in Venice, make sure you check how accessible the hotel is from the Vaporetto station, as its a bit of a pain to lug suitcases up and down the million little bridges that cross the canals. Being in the vicinity of St marks square helps, as thats where all the cafes and shops are, although dining on St Marks square itself (in its 3 historical cafes) is an expensive affair. Just the cover charge (service charge) per person starts at 15 Euro a head. On top of that one also pays an additional charge for the music. However, like I said, Venice enchants one into paying more than one should, and sitting in that grand San Marco square might be worth the experience.
To end, I have to say that Italy is so diverse and so full of stories that one need multiple trips to satiate one’s wanderlust, however, these 10 days were enough information for me to mull on for a long time to come. It has its fair share of drawbacks too – the rude local shopkeepers who are too used to business from tourists to be polite, conmen taxi drivers always trying to shortchange you, the uppity restaurants, and dare I say racist glances that come your way. However, one needs to grow a thick skin, and let it go. I allowed a few incidences to ruin my day, but overall I was charmed by what the country has to offer. I would highly recommend going when the throngs of tourists subside, so one has some breathing room to savour the visual feast.
One of the many lessons I want to learn from this trip – is to get better acquainted with my own culture, watching them practise taking pride in their art, history, architecture, music and food and presenting its best form to people from the outside. To also appreciate my simple minded Indian country folk, who despite being disorganised are not largely unscrupulous in their ways to make a living. To appreciate being part of a culture that has colonised no one, and never had the ambitions to dominate over or force mass conversions of faith. Sometimes, it takes travel to appreciate home more.
I would one day love to go back, to the places I couldn’t go – to Como, Amalfi, Naples, Cinque Terre, Verona, Pisa, Siena, to dive headlong into the stories of conquests, rise and decline of the various civilisations that have left remnants that Italy has so painstakingly preserved. Till then, this is my 2 bits of probably flawed information for those who may want to explore.