It’s only been almost a year(!) since I visited Italy, so I figured now was as good a time as any to finally finish my travelogue and share a few of my favorite photos from the last stop of my whirlwind European study abroad tour.
If you don’t know much about Italy (other than its cuisine, of course,) you probably at least know that it’s shaped liked a boot; a long, narrow country whose northern and southern regions are virtually polar opposites in numerous ways, and so it only seemed right that our 10 day Italian tour-de-force take us from top to bottom.
Time and money constraints (this was the last trip of my five-month study abroad experience, after all,) made going off the beaten path to places like Lake Como and Cinque Terre out of the question, as highly-recommended as these places were, and so it was decided between my two travel companions and I that we would stick to the major cities.
After much deliberation and careful planning, we finally had our route mapped out; flying into Venice, and then traveling by train down to Florence, onto Rome, and finally ending our trip in Naples and Capri, alotting about two days for each stop. I had heard rave reviews of northern Italy from friends who had been, but knew I couldn’t leave Europe without seeing Rome for myself, and the sun and sandy shores of southern Italy were certainly inviting after many rainy months in London.
And so, with 10 days of clothes and toiletries crammed into our over-stuffed carry-ons, we boarded an early morning flight for Venice, leaving London just as the sun was rising, and arriving in Italy with the whole day ahead of us. Venice Treviso, like many European airports, is seemingly postage stamp-sized, but this at least made our arrival into Italy relatively quick and painless. Within minutes of deplaning, we had gotten our passports stamped and purchased bus tickets to take us into Venice proper (the city is, after all, essentially an island with a narrow land bridge.)
While we had envisioned leaving rainy London for the sun-soaked terra cotta of Italy, our time in Venice was quite the opposite. It was raining the day we arrived, though not quite a London drizzle, but more of a humid, misty rain, and I was surprised by just how swampy and lush-green the land surrounding Venice seemed to be. As we passed peeling gray stucco estates with wrought iron gates and ivy crawling up the walls, I got the sense that maybe this would finally be a city that looked exactly the way I had envisioned. And ultimately, Venice was everything I expected it to be and more.
In many ways, Venice doesn’t quite feel like a real city. It’s all narrow, winding alleyways, ornate gondolas and turquoise blue canals, rainbow colored stucco and eye-popping, mouth-watering gelato around every street corner. It feels a bit like being in a theme park, or wandering through a movie set, its essence is so charming and foreign and quaint. After some difficulty navigating through alleyways that all look the same and often lead to dead ends, opening onto the canals or brick walls, we finally found our hostel, on the third floor of an unassuming building demarcated by only the smallest of signs. Though we had booked a six person room for frugality’s sake, we were shown to one set up for three people, essentially our own private suite. We each had our own wardrobe and single bed (no hostel bunks!), were able to simply latch our bedroom door instead of using lockers, and best of all, had a window with rustic old shutters that we could lean out of and take in a view of the rainy alleyway and canal below (I’ll admit to feeling a bit like Juliet as I did so.)
Before arriving in Italy, I’d heard all about the supposed rudeness of Italians, and was prepared for anything in Venice. Looking back on it now, though, not only do I not recall any negative experiences, I hardly remember interacting with people at all. Venice felt the most dream-like of any Italian city I visited; it was rainy and muggy and mysterious, romantic and historic, electric and exciting but also incredibly calming, as though there were a hush over the city, a perpetual siesta. We dined on coffee and croissants at open-air cafes, ate entire pizzas ourselves, indulged in gelato every day (sometimes more than once a day, actually.) We wandered through a bookshop brimming with vintage, tattered novels, alcoves opening onto canals and an emerald-eyed resident cat. We walked from one end of the city to the other, beginning at the bus stop and tourist center and ending in what I can only describe as the “suburbs” of Venice; a quieter, greener part of the city where we ate paninis among locals at a tiny cafe where hardly anyone spoke English, and felt a little like we’d stumbled upon someplace secret in a city that already felt like a magical world all its own.
Due to train schedules, Florence ended up being the shortest of our four stops, but it was memorable nonetheless. It’s a richly historic city nestled in the iconic mountainous region of Tuscany, a picturesque postcard of everything quintessentially Italian. The streets are cobblestoned, the skyline is dotted with topiaries and cathedrals, the wine is free-flowing and the sunsets spectacular. Our first stop in the city, a biker bar down the street from our hostel, was deciding un-Italian, but with cheap food and beer, friendly locals, and even a dog or two, it made for the perfect dinner stop for hungry, weary travelers, and we were quickly welcomed with open arms by raucous locals watching the night’s soccer match on the edge of their seats.
Requisite stops included the Il Duomo di Firenze, which affords breathtaking, 360-degree panoramas of the entire city and surrounding region — once you’ve braved the 400-plus steps to the top. Despite being relatively uncrowded the day we visited, we ultimately waited more than an hour to get inside because, as we later discovered, a woman had twisted her ankle on the climb up and required paramedics to be brought back down. At more than 600 years old, the Il Duomo understandably has no elevators, and its narrow staircase is both the only way up and down, slowing the journey considerably and causing a number of headaches when several young children decided to abandon the climb and throw fits right on the staircase until their parents begrudgingly agreed to fight against the oncoming foot traffic and turn back.
Other memorable stops included the Boboli Gardens, which are about as Tuscan as anyone could ask for, offering even more incredible views of Florence and surrounding vineyards, ancient sculptures and artwork, and even a wine and coffee bar in the outdoor lounge at the top. We also toured the iconic — and incredibly crowded — Ponte Vecchio Bridge, ate gelato at sunset along the Arno River, and feasted on what was easily the best pizza I’ve ever eaten in my life at Gusta Pizza, where the lines are long (but completely worthwhile) and the pies are heart-shaped.
Next up was Rome, a city I’d never felt a strong pull to visit (and yes, I’ve seen The Lizzie McGuire Movie,) and actually being there didn’t endear it to me any more. After arriving into the capital on a late-night train from Florence, we navigated the cobblestone streets to our hostel, which had been ill-advisedly booked because it was the cheapest place we’d found online. Our hostel was an…experience, to say the least, one which I have neither the time nor the energy to recount here, but suffice it to say that being taken to another building in the middle of the night, placed in a bedroom without lockers or a door that locked, and receiving at least one remark from the male hostel owners about our being “too pretty to pay” raised more than a few red flags and was cause enough for us to high-tail it out of there, even with nowhere else to stay.
Going door-to-door in an attempt to find a hotel room in the middle of the night in Rome, travel-weary and saddled with all of our valuables, is one study abroad memory I won’t soon forget. Eventually, after many rejections, we were able to secure a single hotel room, which contained one bed the three of us slept across sideways and a shower in which I could barely turn around. While returning to our hostel to retrieve our things, we happened to run into a concierge who had apologetically told us his hotel was full, but who remembered us and whose inquiry about whether we had found somewhere else to stay helped restored my faith in people that night. The next morning, we were well-rested enough to return to the hostel and demand to be reimbursed for the subsequent nights we had booked. I was painfully aware of embodying the ugly American tourist stereotype throughout the rather heated interaction, but having been ignored, lied to about our accommodations, and literally laughed at as the hostel owners contradicted their own stated policies, I certainly wasn’t about to let us be taken advantage of.
Eventually, I deployed just enough stubbornness and steely-eyed resolve to get us all our money back, but I was still rattled by the experience, and though we were able to find a safer hostel for the remainder of our stay, Rome never really redeemed itself for me. It’s a beautiful city, obviously steeped in history, and the Coliseum and the Vatican are certainly once-in-a-lifetime experiences (ones we waited about 2 hours and 4 hours for, respectively.) The food was also incredible, though no more so than anywhere else in Italy. My sense of the city was ultimately overshadowed by the fact that everywhere we went, we were accosted with offers of selfie sticks and trinkets and tour-group scams, with catcalls and leering glances and men literally taking our pictures and laughing in our faces when we tried to protest. I couldn’t shake the sense that we were constantly about to be taken advantage of, even in spite of our vigilance, and as such could never quite let our guard down. Even as tourists, as Americans, as three young girls traveling alone, we’d never had an experience anywhere else in Europe like the one we had in Rome, and I can’t say it’s a place I’m eager to revisit anytime soon.
When our time in Rome was up, it was all we could do to keep ourselves from walking rather than running onto the train, giddy with excitement over the turquoise waters and sandy shores of our next stops — Naples and Capri. Surely, we told ourselves, anything had to be an improvement over Rome. This, we soon found, wasn’t entirely true. From the moment we stepped of the train in Naples at sundown, I could tell that our presumptions about this coastal city had been fairly far off base. Naples is not a resort town, by any means, but rather a working-class, rather rough-around-the-edges seaport. The streets are dirty and lined with graffiti, the traffic was the worst I’d seen anywhere in Europe, and docked cruise ships puffed clouds of black smoke into the air. It was crowded and humid and remarkably unglamorous. That said, the pizza, gelato and coffee were easily the best we’d had anywhere in Italy, and the cheapest, too, and people were more amiable than in Rome.
Naple’s best selling points, however, are its day-trip options: the ruins of Pompeii and the island of Capri. As we’d already visited National Archaeological Museum, where many artifacts from Pompeii are on display, we opted for a visit to the rainbow-hued island of Capri. Though the ferry schedule was a bit difficult to decipher, and the actual journey wasn’t inexpensive, the visit was completely worthwhile and the perfect end to our visit in Naples and Italy trip as a whole.
Unlike Naples, Capri truly is a resort town — tourism is its industry, from boat tours to souvenir shops brimming with every incarnation of Limoncello liqueur (of which I am not overly fond) imaginable, from candies to candles. There are two sides to the hilly island — Capri, where tourists disembark from the ferry, and where the shops, restaurants and pebbly shores keep most visitors entertained — and Anacapri, which can be accessed by an especially precarious shuttle, into which tourists are packed like sardines, many standing, as the bus makes its way up steep, narrow and white-knuckle windy streets (one passenger advised we all kiss the ground upon arriving at our destination.) In Anacapri, we ate lunch and browsed a few more shops, but the real excitement came when our return shuttle, already paid for, failed to arrive on time, and we risked missing our returning ferry (also already paid for.) Fortunately, an American couple was understanding of our desperate plea to split a cab back to the other side of the island, and we breathed a sigh of relief as we hopped onto our ferry without a minute to spare.
We experienced a similar sort of stressful excitement en-route from Naple’s airport back to London (a story for another time,) though a fitting experience given, as I was reminded without fail during each and every day of our trip, there’s no such thing as a dull moment in Italy.
Ultimately, my ten days in Italy were a tour-de-force of travel like I’d never experienced. I’d never traveled much with my family, I wasn’t used to spending extended lengths of time away from home, and I am, understandably, partial to creature comforts; hot showers, my own bed, familiar food, etc. Of course, Italy is still relatively familiar and comfortable as far as foreign countries go, but there were certainly moments that were less so — moments that in retrospect I’m grateful for having strengthened by resourcefulness, and what I hope was grace under pressure.
There’s little I can say about Italy that hasn’t been said countless times before. The food is to-die-for (Italy has officially ruined all other pizza for me,) the architecture and art is stunning, the natural beauty breathtaking, and ultimately the country is what you make of it. Personally, I found myself to be much more partial to the northern end of Italy than its wilder southern tip, but I’m grateful to both regions of Italy for having added to an arsenal of study abroad stories that I’m already anticipating will last me a lifetime.