The land of Pizzas and Piazzas… Italy is about 5 countries rolled into one. It was 3 months ago that we visited Italy, a complete pot pourri country. Italy has always been on the ‘exotic’ lists of any dreamy traveller… the name Italy itself could give someone who hasn’t visited the country goose bumps.
We had planned to visit only Rome and Venice, which are the top two destinations in Italy. I am so glad that our plan did not work out the way it was supposed to. The list grew to include Florence, Pisa, Cinque Terre Region, Milan and this little beach town called Sperlonga. I don’t remember whom to thank here, but I do remember what that person had told me – ‘Do Italy like you would never return’. And that’s how our itinerary materialized.
26h August was D-day. We were in the railway station at Nice, France and were about to board a train to Genova, Italy. The thrill of crossing over to Italy made up for the sad goodbye kiss to France. It was a lovely train journey along the sea for an hour or so. The scenery was tinted Mediterranean blue. Snoozing for a couple of minutes with the pleasant blue memories, I woke up suddenly to see a brown landscape. What a transition! We were in Italy.
Changing trains at Genova, we reached Monterosso, the first of the 5 villages of the Cinque Terre region. The Cinque Terre region, a Unesco World Heritage site boasts of a beautiful sea face, a winding walking path for nature lovers, quaint villages with murals in the stations, colourful catamarans and water sport adventure clubs. We walked through the first village Monterosso in awe and we would have walked all the way till the fifth village Riomaggiore, but for the burning sensation we felt of the straps of our backpacks digging into our skin. We took a ferry till the fifth village instead. After spending the day amidst such delicious faces of nature, we were enthralled with Italy on Day one itself.
We transited through La Spezia and reached Florence at around 10 pm. We had an email giving us directions to the Camp we were supposed to stay in – Camping Michelangelo. Who wouldn’t be excited about staying in a camp named after one of the greatest artists in Italy. Our excitement lasted till we were shown to our tent. It did slip our mind that camping meant no electricity in the tents and metal beds, which would creek every time we tossed and turned. Thankfully, the journey from one country to another had exhausted us so much that we crashed without any hesitation.
After lovely steaming cups of Italian Cappucino in the morning, we were charged with energy to explore Florence. We headed straight to Galleria dell’Academia, one of the museums I was keen on visiting. The queue was frightfully long and completely blocked the little alley leading to the museum. Thank god for the reservation we had made in advance, we could enter the museum without a long wait. It is only after entering the museum that we realised why people waited for hours to come in. The majestic sight of Michelangelo’s David is unexplainable. The 500-year-old 5000-kg plus masterpiece held us rooted to a single spot, and no earthquake could have shaken us up at that moment. I was in love with David and would have given anything to be transported into his world.
After spending half the entire morning with David, we headed towards the Duomo, Brunelleschi’s impressive creation. No words can describe the feeling one experiences as you walk through the tiny lanes and suddenly come across the magnificent dome, the Baptistry and the Bell tower, all towering above you. Florence had managed to win our hearts in half a day.
We walked through the streets of Florence, passing by Ponte Vecchio, one of the oldest bridges across River Arno. One can actually walk through the entire city of Florence and keep discovering artistic nooks and corners, curious little shops, all adding to the romantic touch. We ate at an Italian roadside cafe, with waiters who spoke in different accents to attract tourists. They managed American, Australian… but were completely stumped when we told them we were from India.
Post lunch, we walked to the Uffizi Gallery and sat in the courtyard listening to the musicians and admiring the lovely paintings displayed by the artists. We clicked pictures in front of the duplicate David, kept outside the gallery. We indulged in Gelatis (icecreams). After assessing Florence the entire day, we had come to the conclusion that God probably made sure that every child born in Florence could either draw, paint, sculpt, sing or do anything extremely artistic.
It was late evening and we took a bus back to Piazza Michelangelo. We sat there just overwhelmed, when we suddenly saw the sky darkening. I have never seen clouds move in so rapidly, nor swirl so ferociously above me. Within 6 minutes, the clear blue sky had been devoured by a wild storm. The Piazza was suddenly deserted, save for two stranded, rather sorry-looking Indians, clutching bags. It was the heavy drops of water, which got rid of our shock and cracked us up completely. Onlookers would have thought we were mad (and rightly so), except that there was nobody around. We ran back to the camp, thankfully running distance and took refuge in the modern bar – complete, I was glad to note, with a handsome bar tender. Ordering half a litre of wine (we were used to guzzling wine by the pitcher after the week in France), we sipped and savored every drop of wine like they were representative of exquisite memories of Florence. The rain and wine led us to our beds and Florence had taken the position of the Romantic capital of Italy in our books.
Next day, we left Florence for Pisa. Who visits Italy and misses the Leaning Tower of Pisa? Reaching Pisa, it felt as though we were in one of the suburban stations of Mumbai. Sheerly the number of Indians in the station took us by surprise. I guess all the tour operators had decided to visit Pisa the day we were visiting.
Standing in the lawns in front of the Leaning tower, we were also shocked by something else.
The Leaning Tower wasn’t actually very tall. I guess one expects all monuments to stand very tall. It was our own fault for having such ‘high’ expectations. No pun intended. The truth is that no guidebook ever mentioned the Leaning Tower for its height. It leaned and that’s all mattered. The queue to go up the tower was twice the height of the tower. Hence, we did not bother. We just visited the Cathedral, the Baptistry and the cemetery, which were in the vicinity. We took the cliché ‘stop the tower from falling’ photograph in front of the tower, with my husband pretending to hold it from the side. After stretching out in the lovely lawns in front of the tower and buying a postcard, we decided to cut our trip to Pisa short and head to Rome.
We took the train and reached Rome in time for dinner. Fawlty Towers Hostel awaited us. I was so curious about this hostel, thanks to the weird reservation confirmation I had received from them. It read – “You can stay at Hotel Fawlty Towers. But, remember it is not possible to pay by credit card. So, please rob a bank on your way here and pay in cash on arrival. We also accept gold bullion – but if you are having trouble getting those, cash will do.” Fawlty Towers however surpassed our expectations. In the 5th floor of a nice building, this hostel had the best rooms we had ever come across on our entire trip till date.
Is it Rome or is it Rome? We couldn’t sleep thinking about what lay in store for us the next day. After some nice breakfast that we picked up from the Station, we headed to the Metro station. A multicolored graffiti express came to a halt in front of us. It struck me after a few minutes that it was the Metro.
First stop for us was the Colloseum. We co
uldn’t believe that we were entering the Colloseum for real. It was amazing. Scenes from the movie Gladiator spiraled into our thoughts. Fifty thousand people at the edge of their seats… the gladiators, the lions… Earth to us! The Colloseum can only be experienced in person. It is a Herculean task to describe the mammoth structure and the air about the place.
After seeing the Colloseum, we walked through the Roman Imperial Forums, where the excavations are still in progress. Not very archaeology friendly, the entire place looked like a bunch of stones to me. I apologise to any archaeologists reading this piece. We walked up to the Palantine Hill, which offers a wonderful view of the Imperial Forums. We were sincerely following the Lonely Planet and we were going in order. Next on the list was Piazza Venezia, which is walking distance from the Imperial Forum. Sitting on the lawns, we gazed at the Palazzo Venezia, a royal building, which set apart the crowded traffic place from others in Rome.
Post lunch, we spent time at Piazza Navona, a huge square with a lovely Egyptian obelisk and tons of tourists. We visited the Pantheon and walked to the Spanish Steps. We would have passed the Spanish Steps without realising that we had. It was so crowded that one could barely see the steps. We took some photographs, which we captioned ‘Try to spot me at the Spanish Steps’. We spent the evening sitting next to Fontana de Trevi and wondering whether midnight collection of coins was anyone’s business model. Having accomplished major Rome sightseeing in one day, we drowned one litre of wine, gobbled Spaghetti Carbonaras and hit the sack.
We spent the next day at the Vatican City. Dan Browns book Angels and Demons was fresh in my memory and that made Rome and Vatican City ten times more exciting than reality. St. Peters Basilica exhibited a tranquility, which I had not come across in any other church that I had visited. The sculptures inside were so lifelike, the ceiling intricately ornamental and each and every element was to die for. We also climbed upto the roof the Basilica. As you are walking up through the narrow passage, which was built around the dome, you can actually feel the curvature pressing against one side of your body. It’s quite a hike but the view from the top etches the mind-blowing Vatican City in your hearts forever.
Next on the list was the Vatican Museums. Michelangelo’s works in the Sistine Chapel… the Gallery of Maps… Raphael’s works… I couldn’t believe we were going to see these things for real. We walked through the museum in a trance, from one painting to another, from one room to another, our visions glued on every minute detail. Every crevice in the museum had some significant work. It was actually frightening seeing such a rich collection under one roof. The Sistine Chapel was serene even with five hundred people inside and Michelangelo’s work on the ceiling took my breath away. We had not read up sufficiently on the background of every painting in the museum. That is our only regret. However, as much as I was a stranger to this world, each and every painting spoke to us with a story so descriptive and memorable.
From the Vatican City, we decided to visit the Catacombs, which was in the other end of the city. The bus ride to the Catacombs gave us enough time and space to digest the morning’s intensity. We visited the catacombs where St. Sebastin was buried. The story of the catacombs and the martyrdom of St. Sebastin left us thinking. There are some serious moments like this in every trip, and one must be prepared to shed a tear if the need arises.
Rome had taken us by a storm for two days and we were sapped. I think I forgot to mention that it was a brutally hot summer in Rome and it was blazing. We wanted to visit the Roman Baths and other historical monuments, but heat and stones was a deadly combination I wanted to avoid on the third day. That was the precise moment we decided to call it quits and proceed a little each town outside of Rome called Sperlonga. A winding bus journey from Fondi railway station, about an hour away from Rome, gets you to Sperlonga beach. Dotted with bright green, yellow and blue beach umbrellas, this was the perfect place to laze around. I strongly recommend one day of laziness in the middle of an Italian tour to unwind and get your energy back on track.
Italy is like India in many ways. Each city or region is diverse in its own way, rich in culture, but unified by a common ‘Italian’ spirit, that one has to experience, while in Italy. We proceeded to Venice by a low cost airline early next day. There is no other place like Venice. It was gorgeous when we arrived. We took a bus from the airport to the water bus station. Hopping on to the waterbus, we headed towards our little hotel ‘Al Campaniel’ in San Toma. Run by Marco, a friendly Italian who made the best English breakfast in Venice, we felt at home instantly.
We set out towards Piazza San Marco where we were greeted by thousands of pigeons. The square was alive with tourists feeding pigeons and we could hear the live music from the nearby cafes loud and clear. On Piazza St. Marco, you will find St. Marks Cathedral, the Bell Tower, the Doge’s Palace and several other museums. A visit inside the Doge’s Palace is not a must, but to cross over a tiny bridge called ‘The Bridge of Sighs’ and visit the prisons is an experience one shouldn’t miss. The bridge was given its name for the sighs of the prisoners who were taken to the other side for incarceration. You can get transported back into history if you stood at the bridge and closed your eyes.
Going up the Bell Tower is again not a must, but the picture perfect view that one gets from the top is worth the cost. Overhead view of Venice, those faraway tiny islands, the domes of ancient buildings standing out, one cannot refute that Venice is a city floating with charm.
Walking by the souvenir shops decorated with colourful Venetian masks, miniature Gondolas carved out of wood, I indulged in some gifts for some friends at home. We then took a waterbus to Rialto Bridge. The beautiful bridge right in the heart of Venice was home to many a fruit and vegetable vendor on their boats. It was home to some of the most expensive cafes in Venice. It was home to hundreds of tiny souvenir shops. Rialto Bridge was a Venetian concoction. We then visited the island of Murano, famous for glass blowing. The island was lined with stores selling delicate glass jewelry and lampshades. We were given a free tour of the factory, which made these glass artifacts.
A trip to Venice is not complete without a Gondola ride. 45 minutes on a gondola costs you 100 Euros. That’s an awful lot of money. We landed up sharing the ride with 2 American ladies, who were extremely glad to share the cost. The Gondola ride is a very delicate balance – everyone has to keep pretty still. It was extremely relaxing however, with our gondolier even singing and whistling a couple of tunes. As the gondola glided its way through tiny canals, Venice grabbed the ‘Romantic capital of Italy’ title from Florence in our books.
There were many museums and churches to visit in Venice, but we decided to give it a go. We spent the next day walking through the tiny alleys, taking the waterbus from one random stop to another, sitting by the canals and feeling Venice intoxicate us.
With heavy hearts and promises that we would return one day, we left Venice for Milan. Arriving in Milan station, which was painted Red, I took out my Ferrari cap from my bag adding one more stroke of the brush to Milan. Milan was our final stop in Italy. Milan was time to play. It was time to party. No more churches or museums. It was time for the Italian Grand Prix of 2005 Season.
The last two days in Italy were spent in Monza, a small town outside Milan, which housed one of the best racetracks in the world. Amidst beer stalls and hot dog stands, amidst Spanish Alonso fans
and German Schumacher fans, amidst thousands of people who traveled for days to watch 60 minutes of action, among flashing glimpses of the best cars in the world, amidst orange clad marshals, amidst camping grounds, we lived our college dream of seeing life at 300 miles per hour.
Till we started our trip, we believed that the only reason we had come to Italy was to be a part of the Grand Prix. I don’t think I mentioned that before. Well, today, its incidental that we were there for the Grand Prix. The rest of Italy handcuffed us with cultural diversity and we did not want to get released. The Grand Prix was the chocolate sauce over the sinful sizzling brownie. The rest of Italy was the sinful sizzling brownie… and I am elated that we had indulged in every last crumb…
The trip to Italy came to an end with us moving from a brown landscape to the green and white landscapes of Switzerland. We had breathed Italy as though we would never visit again… we are still holding our breath… we will visit again…