Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Italy (Rome, Vatican City, Pompeii, Capri, Amalfi, Florence, Pisa, Cinque Terre, Venice)

While planning our Europe trip this summer, only country that was consistently on our list despite many many revisions, was Italy! For all the history, art, architecture, food and scenery it has to offer, how could we've missed going to Italy. We spent 8-9 days in Italy and well, it is worth many more. This will be a very long blog.

Here is our brief itinerary:

Day 0: Arrive in Rome
Day 1: Sightseeing Rome
Day 2: Sightseeing Rome and Vatican city
Day 3: Half day in Rome. Train: Rome--> Naples. See ruins at Pompeii. Reach Sorrento by night.
Day 4: Half day trip to Capri. Bus: Sorrento--> Positano. Ferry: Positano--> Amalfi--> Salerno
Day 5: Train: Salerno--> Florence. Half a day in Florence.
Day 6: Sightseeing Florence
Day 7: Train: Florence--> Pisa--> La Spezia. Hike Cinque Terre villages. Reach Florence by night
Day 8: Train: Florence--> Venice. Overnight in Venice
Day 9: Bus: Venice--> Austria

This itinerary is a part of much longer 3 week trip to Italy, Austria, Czech Republic, Holland and Belgium. I'll be updating the blog for other countries soon.

Useful pointers:

  • We did all our reservations for trains through Trenitalia and Italo. Excellent service.And I highly recommend making all reservations in advance.
  • We had a couple of reservations through airbnb. Both of them worked out very well.
  • Most of the museum and other reservations which could have been done in advance, were booked in advance by us from here. This saved us a lot of time as we didn't have to queue up for tickets.
  • We bought a 1/2/3 day pass for public transport in most of the cities and it was both economical and convenient thing to do.
  • Google Maps is par excellence for public transport routing. Life would have been miserable without its support.
  • Rick Steve's audio podcast were tremendously helpful for various museums and city walks.
  • Google Translate was also very helpful where sign language couldn't do much!

Where to fly?

I love the names of Italy's airports. Galileo Galilei, Michaelangelo, Da Vinci and so on. We were not particular about the city we flew in to, we just had time constraints. So, we flew in to Leonardo da Vinci airport(FCO), Rome. It was convenient to get to the city center from the airport using public transport.

When to go?

We were here during the first week of July and it is really hot. You can't do without a hat and drinking lots of fluids. We mostly stepped out early in the morning and got back around noon to take a nap and avoid the scorching sun and then went out in the evening again. Plus it is a peak touristy season so we had to make all our reservations way in advance.


Day 0:

We arrived around 9 30 pm. We had made our booking using airbnb and our hostess had clearly given us instructions on how to get to her place. We took the train to the stop closest to her place and then walked for around 15 minutes. Thankfully my phone had international data plan and it turned out to be very useful especially on such occasions. After 5 flights of 22 stairs each(yes, I counted!), we finally made it to our home-to-be around midnight(Caterina's airbnb). A nice pink room with an attached pink bathroom. Comfortable and cozy, we crashed to begin our adventure in Rome the next day.

Day 1:

The Roman Forum
The first thing we did was to get our Roma Pass. We had already purchased it online and just had to collect it. This included free visit to two attractions and a discount off others along with unlimited public transport access for 3 days. Extremely useful. So our first visit was to The Colosseum. One word, magnanimous. Roma Pass granted us special direct access to the site, which saved a lot of time. We strolled around for about an hour and listened to Rick Steves guided tour. From there we went to the Arch of Constantine, Palatine Hill and The Roman Forum. I really liked the Rick Steves tour of Roman forum. It has a lot more history and a much more variety to offer. From there we walked to Piazza Venezia, took pictures of the national museum from outside and had lunch. It was really very hot so a we needed a good break to recharge ourselves. From here, we walked to the Pantheon and spent some time outside sitting next to the fountain and touring the inside.

Now we wanted to take a break. So in order to head back home we decided to take the metro from a station close to the Trevi fountain. To our disappointment, Trevi was under construction and totally covered by construction equipment and such. Anyhow, we walked further to a small little fountain in Piazza Barberini and took metro to get back home. 
Fountain at Piazza Navona
We woke up after a couple of hours and took a bus to Piazza Navona. We went to the cathedral situated in the Piazza. Looked inside and then sat down to have dinner in one of the restaurants, totally european style! After spending a few hours, we decided to walk through those cobbled streets to the Spanish steps. Here we spent some time taking pictures and sitting on the steps. Then we walked towards the Pincio located close the Borghese gardens. A perfect place to take skyline  sunset pictures of Rome. From here we enjoyed a very good view of  a concert going on in the Piazza del Popolo. After some pictures and a lovely long day in Rome, we headed back home to recharge ourselves for the next day.

Tip: There are so many historical sites in Rome, every nook and corner has a magnificent church, or a museum or a ruin to offer. You can spend as much time as you want to in this city. Map along with Roma Pass is an excellent resource.

Day 2:

View from the dome of St. Peter's Bascilica
We got up at 7 am and were at the St. Peter's Basilica by 8:15ish am. This was the wisest thing to do, because the queues are so long that you may end up spending half a day waiting in the queue.The queue was still a long one but moved quickly and we were inside with in 20-30 minutes. St. Peter's Basilica is very beautiful and rich. We listened to Rick Steves audio tour and enjoyed the interiors in spite of having huge crowds inside. This place is a huge and totally worth a visit. Michaelangelo's Pieta is also worth your wait in the long queue. From here, we got out tickets to climb up the dome. We got the elevator + stairs ticket. So we took the elevator to the base of the dome and from here climbed around 320 stairs to get to the top of the dome. This is the best view of the Vatican city you will ever get. Worth the climb through the narrow staircase. We took pictures and got down to go to out next checklist item, Vatican museum.
Crowded Vatican Museum

We walked about half a mile to get to the entrance. There was a very long queue, but thankfully I had purchased tickets online and so we didn't have to wait to get it. Once inside, we wanted to head straight to the Sistine Chapel. But there were hoards of tourists, blocking your path and making it impossible to just go past them. It was tiring and very annoying. So much so, that we just totally wanted to get out of that place. But even to exit, you have to walk the same path. Anyway, we somehow got to the Sistine Chapel, but the heat, humidity and tourists had made us miserable that we didn't listen to our 40 minute Rick Steves's guide and instead looked at a few paintings and headed out of the museum! I highly recommend going very early in the morning to avoid the rush.

After a short afternoon nap, we headed out in the evening to spend time at Piazza del Popolo and Piazza di Spagna. We had dinner at one of the restaurants, and took a stroll in the streets before going back home and calling it a day.
Exiting Sistine Chapel

Day 3:

Castel Sant Angelo
I had wanted to see Borghese Gallery on this day, but since I hadn't bought my tickets(my bad!), I settled for Castel Sant Angelo. Spent about an hour here. Very few tourists and an interesting place to visit. There were some great views from the top. After our visit, we headed out to the Cathedral Sopra Minerva. Spent a few minutes admiring the grand interiors. 
Now was the time to yelp for a good Indian restaurant for lunch. We found Jaipur in Trastevere. We anyway wanted to spend some time walking around this area, so we took a bus. Walked around, felt like we were in street market of India, and reached Jaipur. Malai kofta and lemon soda were the best. Then we went back home, packed our stuff and left for Roma Termini, to bid adieu to Rome.


Pompeii Ruins
The night Vesuvius got angry
We took an afternoon train from Rome to Naples. Reached Naples in about an hour or so. In order to go to Pompeii and to Sorrento, you need to board Circumvesuviana train from their small station, which is just next to the Napoli central station. The timetable is here. There are very clear directions to get here. We got two tickets to get down at Pompeii Scava and headed to the platform for our train. This is a local train, just like local trains in India. Not air conditioned, open windows and full of people. We managed to just get in the train and had to keep standing till about 20-25 minutes till a few passengers got down at the next few stations. Anyhoo, not very uncomfortable. So we reached Pompeii Scava station, deposited our luggage at their storage and walked to the Pompeii ruins entrance. I am very glad we decided to squeeze this in. This place deserves a visit. It gives your a true feel of what a Roman city would have looked like in the first century. We listened to Rick Steve's audio tour and walked around for about two hours.
Then we headed back to the station to board our train to Sorrento, our next stop. From the station, we walked to our small little hotel in Sant'Agnello(Hotel Angelina).. Checked in and then walked towards the terrace on the coast overlooking the sea for a very very beautiful sunset. Had dinner at very cute little restaurant Moonlight with great food and headed back to our hotel to gear for a long next day.


Day 4:

Blue Grotto
We took the 7 am train to Sorrento. Right outside the station, we got our SITA bus tickets for Amalfi coast and headed to the ferry port. We took the 7 45 am ferry from Sorrento to Capri. Here is a great resource for touring around the island. Reached there around 8 30 and then took the 9 am Blue grotto tour. Being early really had its advantages as we didn't have to queue up at all were back after the blue grotto tour by 10 am. The blue grotto is very pretty and surreal, but I felt it was too commercialized. But coming so far, we didn't want to skip it. After we were back to the ferry terminal, we took funicular up to the town. Here we hiked to the Augustus gardens. The hike through the narrow alleys lined with shops was very nice. Once in the gardens,  it offered us amazing views of the island and its blue waters. From here we hiked to the Arch. The hike was through a residential area and the view was worth the walk. By noon we took the funicular back to the port and took the ferry back to Sorrento. On our way back we say there was about an hour long waiting to go up the funicular, so having an early day really helped.

View from Augustus Gardens
Tip: There is a lot more to do and see in the island, next time I am going to definitely stay here for at least a couple of days.

We had lunch at the Moonlight restaurant again(Gnocci was really good!), picked up our bags and waited at the bus stop right outside the cathedral in Sant'Agnello. After about 45 minutes of waiting, we went to the main station in Sorrento. On reaching there, we got to know that the bus drivers have gone on strike! We easily wasted a couple of hours here. There was another  red colored tour bus operating from here called "Sightseeing tour of Positano, Amalfi". It was comfortable and air conditioned. Bus ride from Sorrento to Positano was much like Hwy 1 in California. We got down at Positano and took the stairs down to the beach. It was too hot and made things really uncomfortable for us. But the downhill walk through this small town was really good and the town itself is a very quaint little colorful town. The beach was very lively too. From here we took a ferry ride to Amalfi.  
In Amalfi, we spent a couple of hours at the main Piazza. Had dinner and crepes. took some pictures and took ferry ride to Salerno to crash for the night(Nelly's airbnb)       . The coast is beautiful, but Cinque Terre was much prettier.
Tip: Can easily spend a day in Positano and Amalfi. Should do a ferry ride and a bus ride along the coast. Positano a good place to split.


Day 5:

Ponte Vecchio bridge
We took the 9 am train to Florence SMN station. Our train got a bit late, so we reached around 1:30 pm. We got a two-day pass to use the public transport. From here we took local transport to our hotel(Hotel Casa de Secchiaroli). It looked a small bungalow right out of a horror movie with an old guard. Our room was big and comfy. We dumped our luggage and left for Uffizi gallery as we had 4 pm tickets for the entry. We quickly grabbed a bite on our way and reached the gallery. Collected our tickets for Uffizi gallery as well as for the Accademia gallery which we were supposed to visit the next day. Here is the link to buy tickets to all the museums in Florence. Again, we were able to skip long lines. Here Rick Steve's helped us again with his audio tour. This is a must to understand all the history and appreciate the art. After about an hour or so, we stepped out and spent a couple of hours at Piazza della Signoria. There was a free concert going on by the participants of the youth orchestra competition. And it was a sheer delight. A perfect Italian evening!
We yelped for an Indian restaurant and landed in Haveli. Delicious food, but reservations are recommended. From her we took a bus to Piazza Republica. Spent some time and walked towards to Ponte Vecchio bridge.  Then walked to the bridge parallel to it for some great views and best photo ops. Saw the lights come up as the sun went down. Sumit got crazy taking all possible pictures. After a while, we called it a day and took a bus back to the hotel. A day well spent and I was almost in love with Florence.

Day 6:

We had a late start to our day, around 11 am. We headed to Piazza Duomo. Duomo has very beautiful and a unique facade. But there wasn't much to see inside. From here we decided to climb the bell tower for some city views. Our tickets included the visit to the bell tower, the dome, the museum and the baptistery. Climb up the bell tower was a bit tiring in that hot weather, but I highly recommend it. By the time we went to the baptistery, it was closed and we were too tired to climb the steps of the dome. So, we decided to have lunch. There was some confusion as an india restaurant we were looking for, had wrong address on yelp. So, we ended up having lunch at some restaurant in Piazza Santa Maria Croce. Took some pictures outside the church and then headed towards the Accademia gallery.
We stepped in and there it was, Michaelangelo's David. What a piece of art! Totally worth the visit to the small museum. It took us about an hour and from here we took the bus to the Ponte Vecchio bridge again. From here we walked towards Piazzale Michaelangelo. The best views of the city. It was still bright, so we decided to have dinner and come back for some nighttime views. Totally worth the long bus ride back to the Piazzale. After taking some pictures, we decided to retire for the day as Day 7 was supposed to be very very long.
Florence from Piazzale Michaelangelo


Day 7:

Since we wanted to visit Pisa and Cinque Terre on the same day, we started early. We took the 7 am train to Pisa. Walked towards the Leaning tower through the quiet little town. It wasn't much of a walk. And we were at the tower around 9 am. Empty vast lawns and the tower were just to ourselves. We had made a reservation to climb the stairs to the top of the tower for 10 am, so we spent an hour taking pictures and perfecting our poses. Trust me, it was totally worth it! Then the tourists started pouring in around 10 am , but we were done with our photoshoot and were ready to climb up the tower. Here is the link to buy tickets in advance. We deposited our bags and started the climb. It is funny how you can feel the tilt inside the tower while going up the stairs. The views from the top weren't that great, but I liked climbing up the tilted tower. In the same ticket, you can see the cathedral and we just caught a glimpse as it was time for our train to la Spezia. We grabbed lunch and froyo on our walk back to the station. We took the 11 30 train to La Spezia station and were there around 12 30.

Monterosso beach
At La Spezia Central station we got our day pass for the train rides and hike permits. We got a map and the train time table. All the trails were closed except the one between Monterosso and Vernazza. We decided to take the train to the farthermost village and then hike/train back to other villages. We reached Monterosso and totally regretted not getting our swimwear. Had lunch at a local restaurant and the best Penne al'Arabiatta I have ever had. I ordered another serving, but they had run out of penne pasta! Anyhoo, we spent some time around the beach and started our hike towards Vernazza. An absolutely must-do. Stunning views and photo-ops. A tough hike because of all the uphill climb though, but totally do-able. The would suggest hiking from Monterosso to Vernazza as the first views of the Vernazza village are just beautiful. We spent some time at the beach here and just walking around this small quaint town. We grabbed some snack at a sandwich place. Now it gets interesting.

First view of Vernazza
Colorful Vernazza
We decided to take a train to Riomaggiore for sunset. While waiting for the train, I realised I don't have my cell phone. Now while Sumit and his cousin, Anant went back looking for it, we missed our train and meanwhile, I found it lying in my bag. Well, this just meant we had to miss the sunset and head straight to la Spezia. So, we spent some more time in Vernazza and took the next train, some 40 minutes later. On our next train ride, Sumit decided to get down at Manorola village to take some sunset pictures, As he was heading back to get on the train, the doors closed and he was left behind! (Well, on a sidenote, the pictures turned out to be really nice) Anant and I reached La Spezia dn realized the next train is after 60 minutes, because not all trains stop at all the villages. This meant we might just be able to take our train to Pisa in time. But when the train didn't show up, I talked to this Trenitalia guy at the station, who told us, that this train was 30 minutes late. Which meant we would have to spend the night at the station and take the early morning 5 am train to Florence directly. Sigh!
But when Sumit showed up 90 minutes after us, another train to Pisa was running late. So, we got on to that. While on train, some locals helped us look for options to get from Pisa to Florence. The passengers were some students studying in Pisa and extremely friendly and helpful. So, we got down at Pisa, took a cab to the airport and then got on to a bus from the airport to Florence. And we finally reached our hotel at 2 am. Our longest and the most adventurous day in Italy came to an end, finally.
Tip: Cinque Terre was much more prettier than Amalfi and must must spend a day or two here and hike across all villages if the trails are open, that is.

The root cause of all the trouble!


Day 8:

Welcome to Venice
We took the 11 am train to Venice. Our train was till Venezia St. Lucia, the station on the island. We took  the water bus to our hotel close to Marco Polo square(Hotel Commercia Pelligrano). The water bus takes forever to get to the square. It is so so slow and stops at way too many stops. 
The three masketeers!
We had lunch, remember there is cover charge of 2-3 euros per person if you want to dine in at many restaurants. After lunch, we headed out to the square. We went inside the St. Mark's Bascilica and spent only a few minutes walking around. Remember to deposit your bags prior to getting in the long queue for the entrance. After we got out, we decided to ditch the Dogge's palace and walk towards to Rialto bridge. Walking over those tiny bridges and narrow alleys was super fun. We reached Rialto and spent time taking pictures and taking in the views here. From here we walked towards the other end of the island and spent some time there.
Woh kashti wala, kya gaa raha hai?
Then we walked back to the San Marco square for a gondola ride at 8pm. The weather suddenly changed from scorching sun to pleasant and windy. Our gondola ride ended just in time as it started to rain. Gondola ride was so romantic that I'd like to go back and do it once more. I am glad I never did it at The Venetian in Las Vegas.
Then we had dinner at a Kabab place close to our hotel and bumped into a friend of mine! What are the odds! I mean, really! As the sun went down, the lights came up and the restaurants at San Marco square became lively with live music. It was so beautiful that I do not have words to describe it. Any way, we retired for the night and prepared ourselves to bid adieu to Italy the next day.

Day 9: 

We had our tickets for the 9 am bus from Venice to Klagenfurt, Austria. There was so much confusion as to where the bus was from as the ticket was in German. The ticket station was Venezia St. Lucia when we had booked our tickets, so we took Line 1 water bus to Venezia St. Lucia. On our ride, we realised that the bus leaves from Tronchetto, which is further away. So we had to get down at the station after St. Lucia. From there we had to take a "people mover" train from this station to Tronchetto station. We were just running around with our huge backpacks and managed to reach Tronchetto station at 9 am. Running out of breath as we steeped out, the bus was about to leave. Had we been even a couple of minutes late, we would have missed it. But, well, that didn't happen and we were on our way to Austria.
The bus ride through Tuscany region was beautiful. This region was so similar to Switzerland, with all the greenery and clear water rivers. Well, Italy was nice to us and we would definitely be back once again. There is so much more this country has to offer!

What more?

  • Next time I am going to take an empty suitcase to just shop in Italy. Italians have an awesome dressing sense, no wonder we get so many great designers from here. 
  • Towns I want to visit on my my next trip are Sienna, Verano, Milan and Sicily.