On our last day in Italy, we were relaxing at a cafe in Rome after a long, hot day of sight seeing. We were reminiscing about our travels over the past two weeks and we went through our trip, city by city, and decided what were our favorite and least favorite things about each place.
I should say that in all honesty, there was no least favorite thing. The trip was pretty perfect in every way. No mishaps whatsoever. Flights were smooth and on time…all of our apartments were lovely….we didn’t lose anything or have anything stolen…no one got sick…the food was delicious…all of our pre-booked tickets and train travel was great…I mean, there were no hiccups at all. The 100 degree weather was definitely a bit hard to handle at times…but last year we complained about Paris being cold and rainy….so maybe the weather is never perfect, no matter what. So with that being said, here is our list:
Favorite Thing: Tour of the Last Supper
There were a lot of beautiful things to see in Milan. Before we visited Siena’s cathedral (which happened later in the trip), I had determined that Milan’s Duomo was the most beautiful that I had ever seen! Milan is an elegant and vibrant city, but we all agreed that getting the chance to see The Last Supper with our own eyes was really special and was our favorite thing about going to Milan. It’s iconic. And as I described in my blog post, you can’t describe the way the fresco glows on the wall and how large and magnificent it actually is. We saw the other famous da Vinci piece, the Mona Lisa at the Louvre last year, but that doesn’t hold a candle to The Last Supper.
Least Favorite Thing: (this is not a cop out) Our Own Hesitancy!
It’s true. Milan was our first stop on the trip. We were jet lagged, it was our first time in Italy…first time trying to speak Italian to taxi drivers and grocery store clerks. It takes a few days to get your feet wet and to get comfortable in a different culture. Even simple things like ordering a cappuccino at a caffe has its own rules (you pay for it first then order). So I feel like we didn’t explore Milan as much as we could have. We played it a bit too safe. We also too quickly tried to replicate our two weeks in Paris last year (where we attempted to pretend we were Parisian and shopped at farmers markets and were all C’est la vie). When we got to Milan, we bought groceries and cooked meals in our apartment instead of going out and enjoying the delicious food of northern Italy. I feel like we might have missed a little. Luckily, we got over the hesitancy by the time we left Milan and savored the rest of our time in Italy. Despite it all, we loved our time in this lovely city.
Favorite Thing: It is a tie between our private boat tour down the Grand Canal and our gondola ride.
The thing about Venice is what is obvious…it is a city built on water. The water is an intrinsic part of the city. There are foot paths and bridges all over the islands…but the water is the life blood of Venice and in order to properly see the city, you have to see it from the water. And the experience is even escalated when you step down into a gondola and you are literally inches from the water. Your perspective of the grand palazzos standing in their decayed elegance totally changes.
The private boat tour really introduced us to Venice. What was great about the tour (and the tour guide) is that we saw several sides to Venice, including the “working” side. We saw all of the service boats (ambulances, cranes for construction, garbage boats and even a hearse) as well as hospitals and universities and government offices, schools and even the cemetery that sits out on a lonely island in the lagoon. Despite a dying population, it is very much a working city. It’s not all about souvenirs and selfie sticks. The tour gave us a chance to explore all of the different districts…and look at the city from several different perspectives. This city is beautiful from any angle…it does not have a bad side.
The gondola ride was sheer bliss. It was like getting into a hammock on a warm summer day and taking a nap. We purposefully chose a gondolier that was off the beaten path and we requested that he stay in the back canals away from all of the people. He did briefly take us out onto the Grand Canal (which was actually amazing)…but mostly we were just quietly drifting by picturesque buildings draped in lush vines. Time froze on the ride. It could have been 1756, 1934 or 2015. It was almost surreal and beautifully lulling and soothing. What I thought was the ultimate in cheesy tourist things ended up being what will always be a great memory.
Least Favorite Thing: The Madding Crowds (yes, its “madding”, not “maddening”).
From the minute you step off the train you are surrounded by hoards of people. Lots of people. Tons of people. Tour groups, families with 6 kids and 20 pieces of luggage…people taking pictures and knocking you over to get to where they are going. It’s insane.
But the good news is that the crowds are totally avoidable. The crowds live in specific places and have particular habits. They also swell like clockwork.
Once you learn the routines and habits of the madding crowds you can avoid them,…it’s like the satisfaction of solving a puzzle… and that’s when you sigh with relief and simply relax and enjoy the beauty of Venice.
Favorite Thing: Sitting in Piazza Santo Stefano on a Perfect Afternoon
Sometimes it is the simple things that we enjoy the most. It doesn’t always have to be exciting or expensive or exclusive to be special. On this particular afternoon, we had stumbled upon this gorgeous little church, Santo Stefano, which was sitting quietly in the afternoon sun on the far corner of a piazza. It was virtually empty…and when we entered the doors, a curtain of time fell behind us. Suddenly, it was the 8th century in Italy. We wandered around the ancient rooms with frescoed angels gazing down at us…it was a transformative experience.
And the afternoon only improved. We walked across the Piazza to an outdoor cafe and pulled up a chair. For the first time on our trip, we had an Aperol spritz (very popular in northern Italy)…Lena had her Sprite…the waiter brought over a generous plate of apertivo snacks…the sun was extending its last bands of light across the glowing, orange bricks….and we were just in the most relaxed state of mind. Our vacation had reached a peak relaxation point.
Okay, so Josette and Lena got out-voted on this one. Actually, I don’t think they had a least favorite thing for Bologna, so I won out.
It’s no secret that I don’t like heights. It’s actually less that I don’t like heights and more that heights don’t like me…I get vertigo. I get dizzy and feel like I’m falling backwards. But life is short. I’m not going to not fly on airplanes or not climb a 1,000 year old tower and get a great view of Bologna. It’s mind over matter. And the climb up was not that bad. No worse than a root canal or stepping on a piece of glass. But the climb down was absolutely the worst thing ever for someone with a fear of heights. The old, wood stairs were open…you could see all the way down the 300 foot tower. I wasn’t sure I could go down…so I had to just say “Jesus take the wheel”…and I looked straight ahead and slowly and painfully walked down…step by step. And FYI, It was actually painful…my heels dug into the wood stair treads all the way down. The best part of all of this traumatic experience?? Josette and Lena were laughing hysterically at me…Lena could barely breath she was laughing so hard. But I made it down…and I’m glad I didn’t let fear get the better of me.
Favorite Thing: Day Trip to Tuscany
We are not typically a tour taking family. We like to explore at our own pace and we usually do enough research before hand to know what we are going to see. But for whatever reason, on this trip, we decided to book a few tours, one being a day trip out of Florence to see Siena, have lunch at a farm/vineyard, visit San Gigamano and then stop for another wine tasting at a second vineyard. I have thoroughly and completely described the magnificent lunch that we had at Tenuta Casanova. The food was absolutely delicious…but the combination of the setting and the food and wine…and being with one another on this amazing trip made it a very special afternoon. Visiting Siena was also a treat. The postcard perfect town is perched high up on a hill and the cathedral was a true testament to man’s ability to elevate the spirit through architecture and art. This was not only our favorite thing that we did in Florence…it may well be our favorite day of the entire two week trip.
Unlike Venice, which is made up of several little islands…divided by canals…where you can find quiet corners to escape the crowds…the historic center of Florence is a very small place…and it was very hard to get away from the onslaught of tourists. They descend on the town very early in the morning and don’t seem to go away at night. And more so than anywhere else we visited, there were massive groups of tourists that were terrified of being split up…and they just plowed their way through town. I won’t go as far as to say that the crowds ruined our visit to Florence, it is too much of a little jewel of a city, but I will say that I would never go there again during the height of the tourist season. It was overwhelming and definitely our least favorite thing about Florence.
Favorite Thing: The Amazement of Seeing So Much Ancient History in One Place
Rome has so much incredible history and there is literally so much to see that it is impossible to choose one particular place as our favorite. For me, the highlight was getting to visit the Pantheon…probably the most amazing, pure and simple structure that is also overwhelmingly beautiful and an architectural and engineering masterpiece. For Josette is was visiting the Roman Forum and for Lena it was the Colosseum. We’ve been to many many old buildings in Europe…but seeing Roman ruins…things from 8th century BC is mind blowing. We walked down the same street that Julius Ceasar walked on the day he was assassinated. We also visited places where the very first Christians worshiped (in secret) and got to see the haunting catacombs where they were finally laid to rest.
Not to mention the masterpieces of art and sculpture, fantastical fountains…Rome has it all.
While we were touring these sites, there were moments when I had flashbacks of all of the history and art textbooks from elementary school all the way through college…pages rapidly flapping by with images of Roman Emporers and temples, fanciful baroque church facades…marble sculptures of perfect human forms, the arms of St. Peter’s stretching out…and here we were standing amidst all of it. It was amazing to be able to see all of this in person and was our favorite thing about Rome.
Least Favorite Thing: It was our last stop…and we had to go home.
I’m glad we saved Rome for our last stop. It is massive and dense and intense. It is a real city…layered with unfathomable amounts of historic fabric. Your eyes can’t quite absorb all that they are seeing…your brain can’t process all of the history in one place, your feet can’t bear the amount of walking and climbing and your stomach can’t seem to get enough of what you are tasting (see my blog post about what we ate). We loved Rome. We loved Italy. We loved this trip.
And these were our favorite (and least favorite) things.