Italy presents its own challenges as the intrepid travelers continue their journey.
My best friend Lynne Firth and I had just left France behind on our European road trip, and although our initial foray into the French language had filled us with trepidation, a week later we were feeling much more comfortable with our broken phrases, confidently asking for the bill and the way to the toilet whenever we could.
Now we were entering Italy and thus creating another challenge for ourselves. As I had more Spanish under my belt than French, for some reason I figured our learning curve would be easier in this country, but it wasn’t long before I realized how wrong I was.
Our last evening in France had been spent in Nice, and in a bold move, I announced that we would drive to Rome in one go the next day. This was partly due to my silly ego, and partly due to the fact that our hotel in Rome was already booked for that night.
I cannot now remember the name of the hotel, but I do remember that it was near Termini Station, and only after we had paid for it in full did I find out that the area around the station was considered dodgy. We couldn’t wait to see our temporary digs.
My introduction to Italy was miles and miles of road. At about hour five, I was seriously beginning to question my decision to drive to Rome in one day, but we were in it now, so nothing to do but continue. We had to cover about 450 miles, so again, we were taking the main (and expensive) highway.
As we traveled south, we saw signs indicating exits to Cinque Terre, Livorno and Pisa, but we couldn’t afford the time to stop. Hopefully the tower would still be leaning the next time we visited the country.
Just as I began to consider pulling over to the side of the road and sleeping in the car, we saw signs to Rome. We were getting close now, so I simply had to hang on a bit longer. Then all of a sudden we came across some roadworks, and orange cones, and temporary signs.
We immediately found ourselves in a convoy across the Italian countryside, along a detour lane in the dark, with only the odd house light to be seen.
A number of wrong moves later, including taking an exit that cost us a few Euros just to make a U-turn, and an unexpected visit to Leonardo Da Vinci Airport, and we were on the outskirts of Rome, frantically referencing a number of maps to find our hotel. In the end I could see it in the distance, but it was not easy to reach from our point without breaking a number of road rules.
I broke them. We went across train tracks and drove several feet on a one-way in the wrong direction to finally arrive at our destination. It was that, or circling the Colosseum until morning.
We left the car in the hotel’s parking lot for the few days that we were in the capital city, and although the Termini area was hardly Lake Como, at no point did we feel threatened or concerned for our safety.
We visited Vatican City, saw the incredible Sistine Chapel, stood in awe before the Trevi Fountain, took lots of pictures at the Pantheon, and drank eye-wateringly expensive tea in a shop at the bottom of the Spanish Steps. While in Vatican City, we spent time in St. Peter’s Basilica. To see Michelangelo’s “Pieta” in such close proximity after only seeing it in books for so many years before, honestly nearly brought me to tears. It was an incredible sight.
Of course we also stopped in at the Colosseum and posed with gladiators before going on a tour of the magnificent structure, and took a horse and cart ride around some of the ruins because we were unabashedly tourists.
We ate pasta until we were full to busting, and went to see a Queen cover band in a funky part of the city – an amazing group called Innuendo that blew us away.
When we left Rome, I was ready once again to tackle the roads. A few days off from maps and road signs had done me a world of good. We were staying in Florence next, and I was eager to see Michelangelo’s “David,” among a number of other Florence highlights.
We had booked a small bed-and-breakfast outside the city that offered easy access to downtown via public transport. The woman who ran the establishment was very pleasant and had a thick accent, selling us bus tickets that were “two for to go; two to come beck [sic].”
We couldn’t wait to get in and see the amazing art and sculptures that Florence had to offer. Unfortunately we ended up a bit disappointed, as according to the notices on a number of famous museums, they were closed due to a worker strike, a fairly normal occurrence in Italy.
Thankfully the Piazza della Signoria, hosting a collection of outdoor statues, was free, open to all, and featured a copy of the “David,” which cheered us up a little, as we were unable to see the original.
We had only booked one night for Florence, so we missed a number of the recommended sights, but made a note to visit the picturesque city in the future. We’d have to call ahead next time to get the status on any worker grumbles.
On that same evening, I was trying to arrange tickets for the opera in Verona, our next stop along the road. Back then they didn’t really have a website, and so I had to try and manage it all by phone. By the time I managed to get hold of someone, I was told it was sold out, but apparently we could go down there and maybe some tickets would become available.
The drive to Verona was completely drama-free, although we did go to the wrong Holiday Inn when we arrived in the city. We should have known when we saw how opulent it was, or at least opulent compared to its sister hotel where we ended up.
That evening we dressed to the nines and headed to the Verona Arena in search of tickets. Everyone, including our desk clerk at the Holiday Inn, hinted that there would be scalpers around, but no one would actually confirm the information even when pressed.
There were indeed lots of scalpers in the area, but there were no floor seats to be had. The only places available were on the unmarked stone steps in the upper sections.
I grabbed a bottle of champagne and some cups from a local liquor store, and rented four cushions so we would be comfortable. It took a bit of time to find some space, but we finally squeezed in near a railing, after I’d managed to hit a number of audience members over the head with the champagne bottle. We stood out a mile in our black velvet finery among European tourists in T-shirts and shorts, but at least we were at the opera.
The performance of “Aida” was incredible, and there were standing ovations all around on a regular basis. Despite the slight discomfort of our situation, the experience was absolutely worth it. At the end of the night we stood beside some of the Ferraris parked in the VIP area right beside the arena, and pretended that we were looking for our car keys.
Rather than driving to Venice, we made the decision to take a day-trip there by train from Verona, as the two cities are quite close. It was only about an hour later that we arrived in Venice, and took the water bus to Piazza San Marco, arguably the most famous place in Venice, surrounded by archways and buildings, including the breathtaking St. Mark’s Basilica.
Various orchestras played around the huge square throughout the day, and vendors with carts covered in masks and hats were set up to greet the daily cruise ship passengers and other tourists.
We took a tour of the famous glass factory, and managed to persuade a surly gondolier to cut his price in half through the merry dance of bartering and threatening to walk away. Sure, it was a touristy thing to do, but we really enjoyed it, even though he asked “thee beeg one to move to thee right a bit more” pointing at me, as he expertly maneuvered the canals.
We returned to Verona on the evening train, and headed north the next day towards Switzerland.
When I visited Venice with my sister Gabrielle a few years later, we actually stayed in a hotel and saw Piazza San Marco at night, when most of the tourists and vendors had gone. Some men were playing football in the square, and members of the orchestra were still playing their instruments. In my opinion, that was Venice at its most magical.
Tips on Italy:
Give yourself a good few days at least in Rome. There is so much to see, you don’t want to rush through it. If you go there in the summer, get a hotel room with air-conditioning. Bread is rarely free in the restaurants. They’ll put it on the table, then charge you afterward.
If you don’t want any, refuse it in advance. Spend a couple of days in Florence to see all of its beauty, and definitely get tickets to the opera in Verona if you’re there in season. There’s nothing quite like attending an opera in that magnificent arena.
You can now book your tickets online, and I suggest you spring for the floor seats if you’ve got the budget. Stay at least one night in Venice, preferably at a hotel off Piazza San Marco, so you can take a walk there in the evening.