I’m not sure why it always takes me weeks to get the motivation to write about my trips, but here goes. Better late than never!
I honestly didn’t know much about Italy when I decided to book a trip last year, but I knew I liked the food and Roman history, so why not?
I took a COSMOS bus trip again like I’ve done in the past, just because I like having everything taken care of and I don’t want to travel a foreign country totally alone. These kinds of trips definitely cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time, but I like that you get a good feel for a country with a little taste of certain sites so you can come back again and be at least somewhat familiar.
The bad thing is that if you really enjoy a city, there’s often not a ton of time to explore things like museums or historical sites, especially considering Italy had the longest lines and the most tourists I’ve ever seen!
The tour I chose was about 10 days, with really more like 8 days of actual sight-seeing. The flight over was fairly uneventful. I had a layover in Paris and got to the hotel in Rome about noon where they wouldn’t let me into my room until 3, so I had a quick bite and almost fell asleep in the lobby (I don’t sleep well on planes).
Had I known how to get downtown easily, I might have explored Rome, but COSMOS usually books hotels a bit outside the center of a city to keep costs down, so we were located several miles away.
The first real day of the tour started on Monday.
As we drove through the suburbs outside the ancient city center, our guide pointed out some of the wealthier areas. “Really?” I thought. Buildings were covered in graffiti and everything just looked a little “dirty”. It was a stark contrast to other European cities I’ve been to.
We went straight to Vatican City and were able to beat the lines, another perk of being
with a tour group. Even so, there were thousands of people there–we were all shoulder to shoulder as we were shuffled into the gardens with the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica as an impressive backdrop.
After getting an explanation of the Sistine Chapel’s major features, we walked to St. Peter’s and entered the basilica. I’ve seen some impressive cathedrals in Spain, but this one was even more massive. It was tough to get a good photo because of all the people, but it was breathtaking.
We had a quick lunch and hopped on the bus to go to the Colosseum. Because of my interest in historical dramas (i.e. watching lots of Rome and Spartacus), I had a pretty good idea of what the Colosseum would look like. It was pretty cool to walk inside and be able to see underneath the floor where the animals and gladiators would have stayed. It would have been a dark, dank place, but with the floor gone, sunlight illuminated the narrow aisles and rooms.
There was a bizarre cooling effect when you stood in the aisles. The sun beat down on the circular paths around the Collosseum, but step into a short alley and a brisk breeze cooled you down quickly.
We took a walk to Palatine Hill and looked down over more ruins. I wish we’d had more time to walk down and look at things more closely, but it was fun to see a wide-angle view of what a typical Roman town center looked like.
After a quick break at the hotel, we took a guided walk through some of Rome’s squares. We walked to the Pantheon past the Trevi Fountain (which was under construction with scaffolding). It was my first glimpse into real Roman life. It was bustling, hot and crowded, but invigorating.I really enjoyed sitting at the fountain in Piazza Navona and people watching for a bit, gelato in hand!
We finished the evening with a traditional Italian dinner, complete with a male and female opera singer to give us some atmosphere.
On Day 2, we hopped on the Ring Road, sort of like the Capital Beltway, but with less traffic, and headed north to Orvieto, a beautiful hill town.
Driving towards it, it reminded me of some of the Spanish hill towns I’ve visited. Built upon rocky cliffs, it seems impossible that civilization thrives there, but once we hopped on a
nearly vertical tram and arrived at the top, we were treated to really spectacular views.
In college, I was fascinated by the Etruscan culture that I learned about in my art history class, so to see Orvieto, with it’s rich Etruscan history, was pretty neat. I wish I’d had time to visit their museum and see the artifacts, but I was too busy in the few hours we had there wandering the quaint streets and admiring the beautiful cathedral.
The colorful, striped facade really surprised me. I guess I was expecting plain, like English cathedrals, but this was more like ones I’ve seen in Spain.
After plenty of photos, I wandered through the streets just off the beaten, touristy path and had the most surreal experience, like you’d imagine in the movies. I passed a small courtyard and peaked in when I heard a lovely lady singing in Italian. It was a music school and from what I could hear, she was teaching a class. It really provided a nice backdrop to my walk through the town.
There were hints of horses.
I stopped at a cute pizza place with a couple from Australia in our group and had a nice lunch. The pizza was so light, with not a ton of toppings and the crust was quite flaky. Yum!
I wandered around some medieval gardens before we headed back down the mountain. Orvieto has a really cool well that you can do down in, but there was just no time!
We headed to Siena next and went straight to the main town square, Piazza Del Campo. They have an insane horse race in the square twice a year, where people stand in the bottom of the bowl shaped plaza and horses and riders race around in circles. For that day though, there were just lazy tourists lounging around and locals sitting outside at bars, waiting for the Italy vs. Uruguay World Cup match.
We had a couple of hours to wander before dinner, so I hiked through the hilly streets to the cathedral, which featured another beautiful facade, and back to the restaurant for another huge, multi-course meal, which would become the norm for the rest of the trip!
After dinner, about 8pm, the streets of Siena were almost totally bare. Peaking in all the
Siena’s main square
shops and bars, every local was glued to their TV or computer watching the game. Our guide commented that it was the quietest she’d ever seen the streets!
When Italy lost, there was a collective groan across the city that we could hear as we walked back to the bus.
We trekked to another hill town on Day 3, the walled medieval city of San Gimignano in the Tuscan region. The drive to and from was just like the movies, lots of houses built into the hillsides or perched atop a hill overlooking grape vines. This was serious wine country!
San Gimignano was fairly touristy in its main square, so I got a gelato and headed up the hill to a nice view at the top. There were a handful of towers left over from medieval times that gave the town a unique look, but I was disappointed by the touristy nature of most of the shops.
I did have my first experience paying and going through a turnstile to use the public restrooms though!
We spent a few hours in the afternoon at a local winery with a guide who showed us how
The view from San Gimignano
they make and store wine. I’m not a big wine drinker, but it was fun to do a tasting at the end to have an authentic experience. When in Rome! (or Tuscany rather…)
That night, we went to a local farm that made their own wine, olive oil and other items. We sat as a group and had a fabulous meal with so many courses! I was happy to see some grilled meat and some really good french fries, but we also had traditional pasta dishes, way too many bottles of wine, and the ever-present tiramisu. We washed it down with a shot of grappa, which burned!
We spent the a whole day in Florence, which was still not enough. We started the morning touring a leather shop and then had a walking tour with a local guide through the crowded streets. And I thought Rome was bad!
Duomo in Florence
As we rounded the turn and saw the Duomo in front of us, I was taken aback. It’s so huge, I could barely fit it in my photo frame! It truly is a masterpiece and along with the Baptistry, which was undergoing renovations, touring wasn’t really possible since the lines were so long and I didn’t want to waste any time.
I also wanted to go to the Uffiza Art Gallery, but again, lines. I had lunch with a small group during a thunderstorm, the only time it rained while I was in Italy, then wandered the shops on my own for awhile.
I bought several leather items, making sure to find authentic places. There were so many handbags everywhere it was hard to tell which were real. I splurged on a small one for about 45 euros, which is so much more than I would ever spend at home, but now I have one that says “Made In Firenze”.
I also found an awesome local Italian makeup store called Kiko Cosmetics, which was like a U.S. high-end drugstore brand, but set up like a Sephora. I bought a bunch of items to try like eye shadows and lip glosses.
I left Florence having spent too much money, but I’m glad I took the time to explore!
We continued our drive through Tuscany and on to Pisa on Day 5 for a quick stop. Talk about even more touristy! People just stop here for a photo op with the Leaning Tower, but
Leaning Tower of Pisa
it was definitely less crowded than other sites. The road leading up the main square was so packed with rip-off tourist merchandise, it was just excessive!
The other buildings on site were impressive and you could pay 16 euros to go up the Leaning Tower, but I wasn’t keen on that, so I wandered around inside the cathedral from free and people watched a bit.
We headed towards Venice next, and after taking a break at our hotel which was about 20 minutes outside the city, we hopped on a boat to get to the main island.
I’d read that Venice was touristy because of the fact that so many cruise ships dock there for day trips, and that much of the local population is leaving due to the inconvenience of living there (flooding, tourists, etc.), but I was still really charmed with the place.
Beautiful art at every turn.
We had dinner at a nice restaurant and spent a bit of time in St. Mark’s Square people watching. The cathedral had scaffolding all over the front, so no good photos there, but I enjoyed wandering around watching dueling bands play to patrons and onlookers and people just taking it all in.
We spent all day in Venice and started the day with a tour of a Murano glass shop. They had some gorgeous pieces, but all but the smallest things were out of my price range!
We hopped on a gondola ride next. I’m not a huge small boat fan, so the rocking from side to side made me nervous, but once we got off the main drag and into the canals, the ride settled considerably. We had an authentic singer as well, who gave us some romantic ambiance as we went through the canals.
After that, we had lots of free time, but again, I didn’t want to wait in lines to go in the Palace or up to Tower, so with no map in hand, I wandered the narrow streets, over bridges and canals. I made my way to the Rialto Bridge, which had shops up and down the steps and a great view of the Grand Canal. I found my way back just following signs to St. Marks–no map needed, which surprised me!
I stopped into several Venetian Glass shops searching for the perfect, affordable but authentic pieces and found a nice horse and lots of jewelry! It’s overwhelming how much there is and now I’m obsessed and will be searching out more authentic pieces online!
After lunch, we took a guided tour on a boat through the lagoon. There are hundreds of islands, many of them sinking, in Venice and we saw a few with some old structures on them that had been abandoned.
We passed Murano, where they make glass and got off at Burano, a tiny miniature Venice
with few tourists and very colorful houses. Burano’s speciality is lacemaking, so I picked up a couple of small pieces and wandered the dead-quiet backstreets to see a bit of authentic local living.
After checking out their leaning tower, I sat with the group and enjoyed the view before we headed back for dinner at the hotel.
It was a long, hot day, but I was able to find relief by just stepping into a shaded alley, where the breezes flowed! I wish I’d had more time, but I feel like I got the gist of Venice and I really enjoyed it. It was unlike any city I’ve ever been to.
On our last day, we had a lot of driving to do on the way back to Rome, but we stopped in Assisi, a town in Umbria that’s home to the St. Francis Basilica.
We hiked up the steep streets to a beautiful wide, open piazza that sat in the shadow of
St. Francis. I saw what must have been a riding tour group walking their horses, who were slipping and sliding down the hill, and that was about the only horse sighting I had on my trip!
The basilica was massive and beautifully decorated inside, like most I saw, but no photos allowed!
After touring the basilica, I had a really amazing slice of crispy pizza on the sidewalk and some gelato and did a little souvenir shopping.
I wish I’d had time to see some of the Roman ruins, but we had a seriously long drive ahead of us.
That night, a small group of about 15 of us decided to walk from our suburban Rome hotel to the metro and head back into the city to check out a few more sights and get dinner. The metro was pretty easy to figure out and seemed clean and safe. We got off near the Spanish Steps, which were packed with people, and walked to the top so we could have a good view of the city. We wandered through a park, past several monuments and squares, and found a nice restaurant where we all agreed we had the best meal of the trip because we got to decide what we wanted (and no tiramisu!).
Assisi in the distance
Overall, it was a pretty amazing trip and eye opening as usual. I’m really lucky I’m able to save some money and travel–it’s a really important thing to me to be able to experience new cultures, history and people and I pride myself on my adventurous spirit!
I wish I’d had the vacation time to take a longer trip and go to the South, especially Pompeii, but it didn’t work out this time. I feel like a Southern Italy trip is calling my name, but first I think I want to try some of the smaller countries next year like Sweden, Switzerland, etc.