I have been home for three weeks now. Three busy, jam packed, NYC weeks. Yet at some point every single day I have found myself lost in my own memory. I am Strolling ancient streets, perusing local markets, feeling the history buzzing around me, enjoying a glass of local wine under the moonlight and experiencing a general bliss from la dolce vita. I have so much to say about our trip and I don’t want to scrimp. Now that I am finally coming out of my Italian Coma I will write about it in detail.
Italy was…enchanting. There is no other word I can think of to aptly describe being there. Time could have stopped all together as we walked lazily through the streets in awe. We flew into Venice, arriving on December 9 around 2 PM their time. We had taken an overnight flight out of JFK and ended up getting no sleep at all on the plane. It has been many years since either Nick or I has pulled an all-nighter and maintained functionality the next day. Therefore we were half dead both at our layover destination (in Zurich) and when we arrived in Venice. Walking out of the airport in Venice Nick assumed taxis would be lined up waiting to take us where we needed to go. I began chain smoking and enjoying the fresh air (oxymoron? oh well) while explaining to him that we needed a water taxi to reach our destination. After speaking to an official looking airport employee we went back into the airport to schedule our taxi. We didn’t know there was a bus and so we spent far more money than we should have, but at that point we were sore and tired and didn’t care at all. After receiving our voucher we trekked almost half a mile to the porto and happily boarded the water taxi.
The sight of Venice appearing on the horizon woke up my nerves. Turning down the Grand Canal set my soul on fire. I was here, I was physically in a place that I had only dreamed about and it was magical. The air, itself, felt different in a way that no word could ever explain. I stared in awe at everything we passed just imagining I was in a different time. You can feel the past coming through to greet the present at every turn. Having grown up on the water Venice was a nice adjustment and my husband laughed at how often I commented on the taxi drivers boating skills. I learned to drive a boat when I was 5, so I notice these things. The narrow canals lined with gondolas and boats looked difficult to navigate to me and yet our driver buzzed around with no issues at all. We stopped at the hotel and I stood in awe at the grand entrance with stairs descending directly into the water. Of course we were still jet lagged and when we got to the room both of us passed out. Waking up around 8 pm we were starving and still feeling pretty beat up. Wandering the streets of Venice was surreal. Venice has been nicknamed la Serenissima, meaning Serene, and walking a few short blocks makes it evident how they acquired this name. There was barely a soul out on the streets, and finding a restaurant was difficult as so many had already closed. Coming from the city that never sleeps this was incredibly odd to us, but at the same time it was incredibly peaceful and calming. The streets of Venice are narrow alleys of cobblestone and while the buildings are never more than four or five stories this narrowness gives them a much taller perception. The layout of the city, along with the overall atmosphere of it almost forces you to whisper every word. Everything here echoes, whether your voice or the clicking of a well-made heel. It only adds to the mysterious feeling of this ancient city.
Jet lag affected me worse and the next morning I was awake at 5 am, my internal clock confused. I took a long bath, sent my mother an email, studied a map, and woke Nick up around 7 for breakfast. Venice is a relatively small city and in reality you can see all of it within one full day. We were in no rush though so spent our first full day simply walking around and exploring. This was Nick’s idea and he implemented it in every city we visited for more than a day. The first day was always spent walking around, learning the layout of a city and adjusting to a new place. Museums and ruins were saved for the second day. In Venice, though, many of the things you want to see are not in museums. The city itself is a wonder to behold. We gazed in awe at Piazza San Marco, traversed the Ponte di Rialto and wandered deep into residential neighborhoods. This was by far my favorite part of our walking adventure. Walking past the bakeries handing out fresh bread to little old women, watching children stand in awe near a toy shop, or seeing someone hanging out their laundry. This was the real Venice and it was beyond beautiful. We stopped near in a cafe a few blocks away from the Rialto Bridge for pizza and sat in the caffe enjoying some afternoon wine. Once we tired we returned to the room to rest our feet and plan out what we would do for dinner.
The food was incredible and only got better throughout our trip. Dinner is served in courses each more delicious than the last and the second night we accepted a recommendation from the hotel concierge. When we found the recommended restaurant we were not disappointed. The food was of the highest quality and the server was pleasant and professional – like all the servers in Italy. She was happy to speak English to us, French to the people next to us, German to another table and, of course, Italian to her co-workers and other Italian couples. After dinner we went for another walk, this time in the opposite direction. After a long, lazy walk we ended up in the Lagoon area and found an unassuming gelato shop where we got two large homemade gelatos for about $3. We agreed it was the best gelato we’ve ever had. We returned to the hotel for the night as the city had, seemingly, gone to sleep and we mapped out our plan for the following day.
On our third day we prayed in the Basilica San Marco, walked the Ponte dei Sospiri, felt the chill of the Doge’s prison, gazed in awe at the vast rooms of intricate art within the Palazzo Ducale, and wandered through the exhibits at Gallerie dell’accademia. We both agreed the only activity we had no interest in was climbing the many steps of the bell tower at Saint Mark’s. All of these activities did not take nearly as long as we had anticipated and when we stepped out of the Gallery we decided to hop on the city water bus. Nick was adamantly against the Gondola ride, feeling that it was a rip off – advice he received from his parents and my grandparents. However, he was not opposed to paying 7 Euros for a tour of the city by water. So we jumped on the bus, sat on the back deck and took in the sights. Being the only one’s back there made the beautiful trip incredibly romantic. When we exited the bus we were blocks from our hotel and had run out of ideas on what to do. We were both hungry though, so we stopped in a little caffe, ordered some focaccia and pastries and ate them back at the room. Then we napped, exhausted from our extensive adventures throughout the city. That final night, we went looking for the Venetian Christmas Market, only to find it had not opened yet. A little sad we made a few wrong turns and ended up on a shady looking back street. The only business that appeared to be open sold fresh pasta to-go. The concept intrigued both of us so we decided to give it a try. It was the cheapest dinner we ate while in Italy, however it was also the best. I have dreams about Rigatoni with pesto in a takeout container from Del Moro’s. I make my own pasta frequently so this is a big thing for me to say, but it was the best pasta I have ever eaten. The key is eating the pasta immediately, so we walked half a block to a public bench and ate under the moonlight in a quiet unassuming place where barely a soul even passed us. It was not only the best meal but also the most romantic we had while there. After eating we walked a bit more and sat in Piazza San Marco where I enjoyed a hot chocolate and people watching.
Venice kindled my inner artist and my inner ex-pat and all of Italy fed that side of my soul. We went to bed the last night there and I was sad to know I was leaving this beautiful city. The hotel arranged a taxi for us to the mainland the next morning where we collected our rental car and took to the road toward Tuscany.
I cannot say that retrieving our rental car was hassle free, however, after a minor snafu we had rented a GPS and we were on the road. There is something incredibly romantic about taking a road trip, especially in a foreign nation. While there was an incredible amount of adjustment necessary we had a lot of fun and were pleasantly surprised to find American music was extremely popular on the radio. The air itself is different in Italy and made us feel full of life. It took us a little over three hours to get from Venice to Pisa.
Our hotel is Pisa was ideally located directly next to the famous leaning tower. As we were only spending one night there I did not put much effort into the planning and as such, aside from location, we were very disappointed. I wish I had many wonderful things to say about the city, but unfortunately I do not. We tried driving further into the old city and found it overcrowded, difficult to navigate, consumed by vagrants, and just dirty. We ended up never leaving the car in the old city and simply went back to the area surrounding the hotel. There we had some gelato and got harassed by an aggressive panhandler who made us both feel unsafe – which is really saying something for a couple of New Yorkers. We went back to our hotel and asked the staff for a dinner recommendation. I should say that despite being in a magnificent location our hotel was abysmal. It was old and outdated, which I would have been okay with, however it also felt unsafe. You needed you key to lock and unlock the room from both inside and out, the elevator was slow and shaky. And worst of all the bathroom had no door, which is a super uncomfortable situation for newlyweds – even those who have already lived together. We were actually excited to be leaving the next day. The restaurant recommended by the front desk girl was the best part of our stay there. While eccentrically decorated, the food was unbelievable. There were so many delicious Tuscan flavors to enjoy and we ordered a carafe of house wine that was polished off quickly. After dinner we lazily walked the long way back to our hotel and decided to call it an early night. We were not as enchanted with Pisa as we had been with Venice and thought it would be best to get out and on the road early.
We did exactly that and hit the road for Florence early the next morning. Florence was the city I most anticipated visiting. The birthplace of the renaissance and so many classically enlightened thinkers and artists. Florence did not disappoint me at all. The worst part for me was leaving. The whole city is a living museum, with artfully appointed sculptures and architecture at every turn. There is something incredibly awe inspiring about sitting on a bench, or walking a street and knowing that Leonardo Da Vinci or Dante Alighieri or Michelangelo did the same thing centuries ago. It is a humbling moment to feel so connected to the human experience. Florence is fully of a rich culture and a lively spirit. The same spirit that birthed the renaissance is still alive in the air. We walked every inch of the old city multiple times and I still could not get enough of it. We visited the David, il Duomo, the old palace, multiple art galleries, and my personal favorite Basilica Santa Croce, which is by far the most gorgeous church I have ever been in. It is also the final resting place for many famous Florentines, such as Galileo and Michelangelo. The area of Santa Croce is flanked with small leather shops and a wide Piazza that was housing a wonderful German Christmas market during our stay. Frequenting the market was my favorite evening activity, by far. The blending and immersion of so many different European cultures in one spot was electric. I was able to pick up Italian ceramics, French soaps, and German streusel all in one magnificent place. We spent a whole weekend exploring the wonders that Florence had to offer we barely scratched the surface of all she has to offer. We were sad to leave but part of me was excited for Assisi.
We were actually only visiting Assisi because it was built in to the package we booked, but as someone who was raised Catholic and went to Franciscan school I was a bit excited to visit St. Francis Basilica. When we arrived to our hotel we soon realized that, for the first time on our trip, our hotel was not ideally located. We were actually well outside the city in what would be considered a suburb. Although this was disappointing we decided to drive up to the main city and do some sightseeing. Though I should say we decided to drive only after attempting to take the bus, which was a foolish idea that had a predictable result. So we drove and parked in the tourism lot near the Basilica, since driving in the city is for residents with permits only – a lot of the old cities are like that. Now I knew Assisi was built on a mountain and strategically this was smart for an ancient city. Furthermore the effect that St. Francis Basilica has perched on a mountain top is divinely inspired. We climbed the steep street up to the massive church past a few local ceramics shops and restaurants. We stopped about half way for some of the best paninni on freshly baked bread I’ve ever had. When we arrived at the St. Francis complex, the road became smoother and looking down I could see they were actual natural stone mosaic tile in earth tones. It was absolutely incredible. We toured the Basilica and were led downstairs where we prayed before the remains of Saint Francis. I’m certain that to some that sounds a bit morbid, but I have to say that it was the most serene and peaceful experience of my life. I could actually feel a calming presence while there that I can’t entirely explain. When we emerged from the church we went to the courtyard and visited the nativity. Saint Francis invented the nativity and was responsible for making it such a major part of Christmas culture, and the one in Assisi is massive and spectacular. It was around this time that I started feeling ill. As I looked off the mountain I started feeling dizzy and nauseous, it thought it was the height so I looked down but the mosaic streets seemed to be dancing around me. Worried about my health Nick immediately helped me back to the car headed for the hotel. I am still not sure if I was overcome with altitude sickness, vertigo or something else, but whatever it was prevented me from enjoying the rest of Assisi. We spent the rest of the night in our hotel and dined in the adjoining restaurant. I slept uneasily that night but was feeling a bit better when we woke up to start our journey to Sorrento.
This was the longest journey for us, from Assisi to Sorrento. We also stopped on the road to grab breakfast and espresso since the Assisi hotel did not include that. They were the freshest pastries we had while in Italy. Id like to say that our drive down the Amalfi Coast was breathtaking, however, it was pouring rain so it was more frightening than anything else. The roads along the mountainous coast are dangerous and terrifying at best and it often felt as if the car would never make it. We drove along many two way streets that barely fit our little Fiat, always scared a car may be headed for us just around the next turn. When we finally arrived in the city of Sorrento we were briefly enchanted by the orange trees lining the streets, and as the storm lifted we were able to see across the water where Vesuvius rose high over the water. Our happiness to have arrived was short lived, though as we immediately got lost trying to find out hotel. It took hours to finally figure out that in order to go further down the mountain we needed to go along a road hidden by a gas station. We were exhausted and furious by the time we got to our room and Nick had already decided that we would avoid driving anywhere during our stay here, if possible.
Sorrento is one of the most relaxing places I have ever visited, and when you think of lazy laid back vacation, Sorrento hits the mark. We spent our four days there mostly walking through the streets, perusing local shops and drinking too much Limoncello. The old main street, which has become hidden over time is still bustling with life and every store we walked past invited us in and offered us candy and Limoncello. It was a like a dream. Being from Southern Italian families, the food was like a taste of home but better. Fresh handmade gnochi, thin crust pizzas, and decadent desserts made us want to never leave. However, on our third day there we decided to venture to near by Naples, to visit the ruins of Pompeii. As a history nerd, this was a dream come true, as was most of the trip, to be honest. Wandering the streets, reconstructed villas and amphitheaters of the lost city was both heart wrenching and beautiful. Ever since I first learned of Pompeii’s existence as a child I dreamed of seeing it. I was not disappointed. However after a day of walking the unmaintained ancient streets we both found ourselves exhausted and in pain. As we left I could feel myself leaving a piece of my heart in this ancient city. Our final day in Sorrento was spent mostly Christmas shopping and stocking up on Limoncello and fine wines.When we left I was sad, knowing that as we headed to Rome our trip was nearly over.
We returned our rental car on the outskirts of Rome and took a taxi back to the city center. We were staying in the heart of the eternal city directly across from the Trevi fountain, which we were sad to learn was covered and closed for maintenance. There is nothing I can say about Rome that has not already been said a thousand times. Old world meets new as you walk from a row of spectacular high end shops into an piazza housing the Pantheon or an ancient row of semi excavated temples. We walked in awe through the Colosseum, gazing out at the view it provided. We found our way over to Palatine Hill & The Forum where the energy from ancient life is still alive. There is something very humbling about standing in a place that birthed so many forward thinking ideas, a place, without which our lives today would not be possible. We strolled ancient palaces and got lost a few times and ended up in the President’s front yard. And the Vatican – Oh my Lord the Vatican. The museums hold some of humanities most elite treasures and profound histories. The Vatican is the only part of our trip that we actually paid to take a group tour of. We knew we would not be able to take in all it had to offer if we did it alone. It was worth every penny.Our guide was intelligent and well spoken and absolutely made the tour. As he led us to the Sistine Chapel, he informed us that we were not allowed to take any pictures and were supposed to keep quiet. This was easy for me. I took my time walking around the small chapel, amazed at the absolute wonders that were painted around me. I settled on a bench toward the rear of the chapel and just sat there trying to take in the beauty and serenity. This is a room that has inspired men for centuries and there is no question as to why. Just being there is a religious experience, even for those who are not Catholic. From there we were ushered into a room and told we would be enter Saint Peter’s Basilica, the cornerstone of the Catholic Church. While tour guides are not allowed to actually walk you around and explain things, ours did this before we entered. He told us what and where to find some of the wonders of the church. He tried diligently to explain enough as to answer our questions before they even arose, and then we entered the largest church I have ever been in. Here in St. Peter’s there are saints and pope’s laid to rest, there is artful architecture and wings of wisdom. I feel like it took me forever to get through it and each step had me more in awe. After leaving the church we met back up with the group on Saint Pete’s Square, which is massive and offers an excellent view of the basilica.
And before we knew it, our honeymoon had come to an end. We sleepily sat in the hotel lobby at 6 am waiting for our taxi to usher us to the airport. After flight delays and a 12 hour flight I was happy to land in JFK just because I was happy to be on land. As we were ushered through customs and greeted with harsh NYC weather I immediately missed Italy and wished I had never left. My Sister in Law picked us up and brought us home where we half unpacked and fell asleep immediately, despite it being only 530 in the evening. Our bodies told us we had been up far too long and our internal clocks were still set to Italian time.
This trip was something I had dreamed about for years and I was amazed when it finally happened. It was everything I had hoped for and more. If you’re on he fence about visiting Italy, let me tell you now – JUST DO IT! You will not be disappointed.