This year’s big trip is going to be Italy!
In addition to the numerous “Mini breaks” that my wife & I take during the year (why not – it’s one of the big advantages of this Digital Nomad lifestyle!), we always plan one (sometimes two) major trips each year.
This year, we have decided on Italy. We first went to Italy over Easter in 2016, when we visited the north of the country – Venice, Milan, Florence (& Tuscany), Piza Cinque Terra & the Italian Riviera. This time though we are focusing on the nation’s capital, Rome, with a few more days in Tuscany (yes, it’s that good!) – & it’s high summer, so we are hoping for plenty of sunshine.
We had a fabulous time but, if I tried to give you a blow by blow description of the break this article would stretch to far too many pages! So, instead, I’m just going to share some of the highlights of the two weeks we spent in this delightful country.
Day one was a Thursday, so we headed to good old Terminal One at Frankfurt airport to board our Lufthansa flight to Rome. As Australians we are always amazed that a flight of just over one hour can get you to another country – seeing as in our homeland that feat takes a minimum of four hours (if you head to New Zealand from either Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane) or 8 hours to the Asian continent & 13 hours to North America (let’s not mention Europe ‘cause flight times to there are obscene!).
We landed in Rome’s Fiumicino airport a little after 7pm & collected our single piece of luggage without any delays. Another great plus of travelling in Europe (well, most of it anyhow) is that you don’t have to hassle with immigration queues! Fifteen minutes after touchdown we are in a taxi & heading for our Air BnB accommodation in Trastevere, a “Hip” inner suburb of the capital, which is to be our home for the next five days.
Being in a car, whether as a passenger or as a driver, is quite an experience in Rome – & certainly not for the faint hearted! The highways are fine but once you leave those & hit the city streets it’s like being on a thrill ride at an amusement park! Car horns blare out to an almost synchronized tune & no-one seems to take lane markings, traffic lights or road signs seriously.
Then, there are the narrow streets that were never intended for anything more than a horse & cart but which must now cope with parked cars as well as those on the move. I was certain that our taxi was going to lose a door or, at the very least, a side mirror on more than one sharp turn but, to my amazement (& my wife’s relief), we arrived at the building our apartment was located in without a scratch!
Hats off to the taxi driver for even finding the place!
The apartment building is right in the heart of Trastevere, surrounded by bars & restaurants. Our host, Ingrid, co-incidentally, is talking with her friends at the building doorway &, after the necessary introductions (& paying our cab driver), shows us to our room.
The apartment is on the second floor (no lifts) of a four storey building which is serviced by a narrow internal stairway. The apartment door has more locks on it than Fort Knox (I assume, having never actually been there!). It consists of two bedrooms, a lounge/dining area, kitchen & bathroom. It is clean & quite cosy – our room is a good size & features large windows on two walls with wooden external shutters.
Next morning we begin our adventure – exploring the city of Rome! Here’s a snapshot of the next few days……..
The only thing we have booked in advance is the Colosseum. During summer, the lines for tickets are supposed to be unbelievably long, so I made sure to book our tickets online. We decided to walk to the Colosseum from our apartment so as to get a “Feel” for where we are. Even though the day’s temperatures were forecast to hit thirty plus degrees (Celsius). For us, a thirty degree day is heaven! We made sure to carry water with us & headed out.
It was a twenty minute walk to get to Piazza Venezia which, itself, was then a further 10 minutes to the Colosseum. As our entry ticket for the Colosseum was for 2pm (yes, you have to book an entry time when you advance purchase!), we had plenty of time to soak up the local sights along the way.
We didn’t have any trouble finding the entrance – it was where all the queues were! And the queues were quite something! Even though we had pre-booked our tickets, it still took us the best part of 45 minutes to get to the head of the line for pre-booked tickets & to pass through security (an unfortunate fact of life in Europe now). I would hate to think what the queue time was for those who had to first purchase a ticket & then line up to get in!
Still, once inside, it is definitely all worth it. All I can say is – WOW! That this monument was built over two thousand years ago is amazing. I can certainly understand why people would have come to Rome & been blown away by this entertainment mecca. I would strongly recommend that anyone visiting this place grabs an audio guide – it costs a little extra but is well worth it as the information you get from the commentary is very insightful.
It’s also worth considering the services of a local authorized guide if you have not booked entrance tickets in advance. Whilst it does cost more than regular admission, you get to skip all of the queues so, if you are on a tight timeline, it could be a way to cram the most into your visit. These guides are outside the Colosseum & touting their services, so you won’t have any trouble finding one!
We spent several hours exploring the Colosseum before heading out & to the Palatine Hill, which is situated adjacent to the Colosseum. It is the centremost of the Seven Hills of Rome and is one of the most ancient parts of the city. It stands 40 metres above the Roman Forum, looking down upon it on one side, and upon the Circus Maximus on the other. After wandering the old streets & gardens of this area we started to make our way back towards Travestere, where we grabbed a bite to eat in one of the many restaurants close to our apartment.
Other sights we made a point of taking advantage of included; the Tiber river, the Largo di Torre Argentina (where it is claimed that Julius Caesar was assassinated), & the magnificent Piazza Venezia – which dominates the local landscape & is a great spot for photos (at least the throngs of tourists there thought so anyway!).
Strolling through these streets with so many historical & ancient buildings & monuments at every corner is a real buzz!
We also made sure to grab a ticket for the “Hop on, Hop off” bus tour of Rome. We’ve done these tours in most of the other European cities we have visited & they are always good value. It’s a great way to familiarize yourself with the city’s sights & to be able to get from one site to another without having to worry about transport.
Whilst we saw plenty of the city & there were amazing sights, we were left unimpressed by the commentary on the tour. It’s pre-recorded & transmits in numerous languages (just like all the other cities) but there were long pauses with no commentary & what commentary there was, was not very enlightening. Still, we were able to see the Trevi Fountain & the Spanish Steps, along with some great hilltop views of the city. We got a 3 day pass so that we could use the bus as a means of getting from A-B for the remaining days we had in the city.
A must do is to visit the Pantheon – a former Roman temple, now a church, on the site of an earlier temple commissioned by Marcus Agrippa during the reign of Augustus – so it is very old! It’s also very impressive & is still a place of worship after two thousand years!
Another place we really enjoyed was the Castel Sant’Angelo. It is a towering cylindrical building in Parco Adriano – about a 15 minute walk from our apartment & very close to the Vatican. The Castel was initially commissioned by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself and his family & has served as a fort but is now a museum & really interesting. We had afternoon tea at the café on the upper level of the Castel & the views were awesome!
Of course, no trip to Rome would be complete without a tour of the Vatican & Sistene Chapel! This is another place where the queues are frightening – so it’s always advisable to book ahead by getting tickets online. I went a step further & booked us on one of the “Early” tours. These are limited in number & only happen before the Vatican is open to the public. We had to be at our pick up point no later than 7.30am, which meant leaving our apartment by 6.45am.
Meeting up with our tour guide was a little confusing but we managed to find the right spot & our guide. We were in a group of around 15 people (only about 10 groups can be admitted at a time so you need to book well in advance during high season) & it was a real treat to be able to walk through this magnificent building without hordes of tourists swirling all around. The silence of the place that early in the morning really added to the grandeur of the surroundings & also allowed us to get pictures that would have been almost impossible later.
The tour takes about an hour &, once completed, you can stay in the Vatican & view as much as you want for as long as you want. You can’t take pictures in the Sistene Chapel though!
We did so much more in the six days we had here – watching the sun set from the top of the Janiculum Terrace – another one of Rome’s hills (there are several, I’m told!), shopping in the designer stores, late night dinners at the many streetside cafes & restaurants oh – & did I mention our trip to Pompeii?
Our tour is for Pompeii only, you can get some tours that also include Naples but I wouldn’t recommend these as trying to do both places on the one day just wouldn’t do either of them any justice.
It’s a little over three hours drive to Pompeii (including a rest stop mid way) but we have a tour guide who provides an interesting commentary of some of the areas we pass through, as well as what to expect when we get to our destination. Once we arrive our tour guide introduces us to our Pompeii guide (apparently the guides for Pompeii require special qualifications!) who takes us on a walking tour around some of the old ruins.
I say some, because the size of this place is quite amazing. It’s over 170 acres & only about 60% is excavated. Mind you, the part that is excavated is stunning – streets & houses intact – some places even have full colour murals still plainly visible! The guided tour was optional but well worth it – you would miss most of the interesting information about the ancient city without a guide’s expertise to inform you along the way.
We had plenty of time to explore parts of the ruins we are interested in seeing by ourselves before we head back to the entrance area & grab a Margherita pizza which, apparently, was created in this area. It is the most amazing tasting Margherita pizza I have ever had!
One thing to mention when dining at Pompeii, you are best to “Shop around” for your meal as there are a number of establishments & they compete with each other. Waiter service will mean that you pay 30% more (as a minimum) than ordering at the counter & eating in the “Takeaway” area. Prices also drop once you go outside the main ruins marketplace.
Next stop Chianti! We picked up our car at Rome’s central railway station and getting out of the city was interesting to say the least –thankfully, I only had a little over 30 minutes of city traffic to navigate before we hit the highway – no more traffic lights & narrow streets for a while!
We had just over three hours travelling time to get to our destination – Greve in Chianti, where we would be staying for the next few days at a lovely villa called Podere Campriano. The drive was uneventful & we arrived in one piece a little after 4pm.
What a lovely spot – nestled in a hillside with views over the town, our room was like a small apartment & the villa featured outdoor dining areas & a great pool with stunning views of the surrounding countryside. We are certainly going to enjoy this place!
We had dinner at a charming restaurant in the town where we thought we had been joined on the terrace by a Humming bird feeding off the flowers around us. As it turned out, it wasn’t a Humming Bird but a Humming bird hawk moth! This thing flew & hovered just like a Humming bird – darting from one flower to the next, quite amazing!
Last time we were in Tuscany we stayed twenty minutes drive west of Florence outside of a small town called Signa – which was beautiful. We were so blown away by the natural beauty of Tuscany that we promised ourselves to go back!
So here we are, this time in the Chianti region of Tuscany. Greve, is less than an hour’s drive south of Florence & is such a lovely place. We decided to really take it easy after the hectic schedule in Rome so our days comprised of getting up around 9am so that we could enjoy a leisurely breakfast in the Villa’s cellar style dining room where we were served a selection of breads, fruits & fillings all produced in the local area. Being a family run establishment the staff were all really friendly – even though their English was limited.
Breakfast was generally followed up with a few hours lying by the pool & soaking up that wonderful Tuscan sunshine. Then we would head out for a few hours to explore the local countryside – making sure to pick a different spot each day for lunch!
The food, the wine, the whole atmosphere here is really quite idyllic – it would be very easy to get used to doing very little in this place!
We would return to the Villa late in the afternoon & either relax by the pool or sit at one of the outdoor areas sipping on wine and casually grazing on some anti-pasta dishes – this is the life.
Come Friday, it was time for us to sadly bid farewell to our Villa & Greve to head off to Gaiole in Chinati – a little less than a 45 minute drive where we would be staying at the Cavarchino B&B. Our room was in the old tower section of the building & dated back to the sixteenth century! We had great views of the countryside from the window in our room (mind you, getting our suitcase up those narrow stairs was a bit of an effort!).
Our host, Andrea, was super friendly & went to great trouble in giving us all the best places to explore. As the head of the local tourism group he was a mine of information & encouraged us to use his name in getting “The best service”!
From this “Base of operations” we were able to explore the area & the local towns – many of which still retain their medieval flavor. Particular highlights included;
Radda, where the old city walls are still in tact & contain a lot of the shops & even some residences. Very interesting! Brolio, features the Brolio estate & winery where the local winery is still owned and operated by the family that has ruled the area sine medieval times!
And, of course, the magnificent scenery! We had dinner one evening at a restaurant high in the hills overlooking the Gaiole area, where we were able to dine as the sun slowly set behind the hillsides facing us – absolutely stunning!
After a few days here we sadly bid our farewells to Gaiole & to Tuscany and pointed the car south for our journey back towards Rome & our flight back to Frankfurt.
Rather than simply driving straight to Rome, we headed towards Civitavecchia – this is a major port & is, in fact, where most of the cruise ships dock when visiting Rome. It’s about an hour’s drive from the airport & a good place to rest up before we head home.
Along the way we are able to stop at a small town called Grosetto for lunch, which turned out to be quite the experience! The town itself was very pleasant – albeit a little quiet as it was a Sunday. We ended up walking around the town centre which featured a beautiful old church & ended up at a little street restaurant that we decided to have lunch at. The owner was a very energetic guy – it seemed as though he was serving all tables at once, he was moving around so fast!
Anyhow, he comes to our table with a big grin and asks us a one word question in a thick Italian accent, “English?” To which I responded, “Yes!”. At that he says, “Ah, then you like fish, no?” Again I give him a “Yes!” & order our drinks – Iris is having a Rose & I’m having a local beer. With that he smiles & heads off inside (we are seated at an outdoor table) muttering, “Good! Good!”
Five minutes later he brings out two bowls of a delicious shellfish risotto – mussels, clams, small shrimp & the like, along with our drinks. Things are looking good!
We are not quite finished with the risotto & out comes a large bowl of freshly steamed mussels, a small plate of raw, seasoned whitebait & a small bowl of garlic prawns which he places on the table, all the while wearing a smile like that of the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland.
We finish everything off & are feeling quite full. He then returns to the table (still wearing that smile!) & we tell him that the food was delicious. He responds with his customary, “Good! Good!” & then looks at me and says, “Now for the fish!”
I raise my hands & say, “Woah, no thank you! We are full!” but he insists, “Ah but the fish is good!” (still smiling). I explain that we are full – even though the food is delicious. The look on his face was that of someone who has just been told that a close relative has passed away but he cheered up when I ordered a coffee instead!
We then noticed that this routine was being played out on most of the other tables around us! A couple of customers took offence at his style & decided to eat elsewhere but we thought it was rather funny. The whole meal cost us just over thirty Euros, which I thought was pretty good for the two of us – especially for such fresh & delicious seafood.
We made it to Civitavecchia a little after 4pm, where we were staying in another Air BnB. Our host, Adriano, was really friendly & our room was quite large. This region of Italy was in drought – little wonder with the high temperatures – they hadn’t had any decent rainfall in months. As it happened there was a large bush fire raging around the town during our stay. You could smell the smoke wherever you went.
Once we had settled into our room we decided to head down to the port area to see what there was in the way of dining options. Adriano had given us some suggestions & there was a local map in our room which we used to make sure we were heading in the right direction.
It was a fifteen minute walk to the port area, where we came across Forte Michelangelo, an historic monument erected as a fortress in the 16th century with panoramic ocean views – I was even able to do some canonsurfing!
From there it was a ten minute stroll to the dining precinct which featured dozens of bars & restaurants. We found a bar/restaurant with an unoccupied table right on the waterfront which we decided to have some drinks & a meal at.
There was an interesting passing parade of people walking along the sea front, as well as some side entertainment of a couple of water dumping sea planes going through their paces in trying to douse the bush fires. By now the plume of smoke was like a blanket over the entire city!
Next day we had breakfast with Adriano (our host) – a simple selection of juices, fruits & fresh croissants, served with fresh brewed coffee – who informed us that he had spent a good part of the previous night moving animals out of a vet’s premises as the bush fires were threatening to destroy them! On driving out of the city we had only driven 500 metres & signs of the fire were everywhere – with burnt out areas of the town dotted around as a result of the main fire’s airborne embers landing inside the main areas of the town.
Luckily, there wasn’t any property damage as the fires had ignited parklands & undeveloped land – mind you, I’ll bet the fire department had a very busy night!
What a trip! Certainly another one of the many super memories we are creating on this “Adventure” in Europe that we started two years ago.
Next up – England for 10 days, but that is a tale to be told another time!