The length of the train journey from Rome to Cannes was a little daunting. Luckily, our long haul plans were adjusted when we were contacted by Mack and Anne (parents of Ben) who were in Genoa planning their sailing adventure and kindly invited us to stay with them. It was great to see some familiar faces, celebrate our engagement, see Genoa and the famed International Boat Show, and break up the train journey to Cannes.
Rome was one of those great experiences in which you go with your expectations contained and get the pleasant surprise of having them totally exceeded. Being a big city, enjoyment can be colored by so many factors, which always makes the outcome all the more subjective (i.e. our experiences in Prague – perhaps if we gave it another chance we would see it in a different light?) Having heard hints at it being busy, dirty, crazy and the like, we were pretty pleased to find it easy and relatively clean from the get-go. The time of year likely helped – we have both decided that avoiding Europe in July and August is definitely key. Heat and crowds don’t mix, and the heat at the beginning of October was enough.
We used the excellent articles on the revealedrome.com blog to find a place to stay, as well as to guide us away from the tourist traps of average, overpriced food and run of the mill haunts. It was a really excellent source which lead to no-fail meals and finding some of the less frequented spots. Definitely recommend it. It made for a much better experience, and meant we carried on our trend of food enjoyment – including a truffle pizza for Alex and even a good steak which he was stoked with.
Our accommodation was a funny ‘retro’ styled place, which called itself a B&B but was really a semi-hotel with breakfast around the corner at a local cafe. You cannot fault the Italians for there coffee, when even the bad stuff is good, but they could learn a thing or two about breakfast. Writing this in retrospect (yes, we got a bit behind!), if you combined the Italian coffee with the French breakfast, you’d be well set for the day.
The best thing about where we were staying was that to get to all the places we wanted to see, we had to walk around the Colosseum. Having studied Classics at school, in which I had to rote learn facts about such as the Colosseum, I was pretty excited to see such buildings in front of me. I hadn’t expected that such a well-marketed/photographed tourist site would still have quite the jaw-dropping impression that it did when we first cast our eyes on it. It is undoubtedly deserving of the hoards of tourists and it’s well-photographed status. With online tickets and guided tour purchased, we avoided any queuing and really enjoyed our time inside it soaking up the shear size, architectural genius and historical significance of it all.
After having a look at the Arch of Constantine just next door to the Colosseum we walked the 100 meters to the next sight of interest, the Roman Forum. So many square meters of history within one area was pretty baffling – for those who don’t know, it was basically the centre of Roman life, and has the ruins of numerous government buildings. After all the history and ruins in the heat, Almo was falling asleep on our perch overlooking the Forum, so it was time to head off and find somewhere for dinner.
The only place we were bothered by hoards of tourists was the Vatican Museums – which unfortunately meant the intended peace of the Sistine Chapel was unattainable, and the loud “shhhhhhh” from the guards was met by around 10 seconds of bustled quiet, and the “no photo, no photo” was met by ‘yeah sure, I’ll just subtly hold my camera at my waist and blatantly flout your rules’. Tourists are nothing if not obedient… I think we were possibly both a little disappointed by the experience. It was interesting and the place is pretty bizarre existing as its own little world, but it didn’t really cut the tourist highlight mustard so to speak. The Basilica and St Peter’s square were a bit better, though the whole thing was all a bit baffling, you could say.
We had a look at the Trevi Fountain on our travels through the streets. It was completely surrounded by tourists, and I think we accidentally spent more time watching people get hit by coins intended to reach the water than we did looking at the fountain itself! The other highlight was the Pantheon, with it’s amazing unsupported dome ceiling and open oculus. Such an architectural feat.
Being in a city where it’s history is evident at every corner was really something. Be it an arch, column or area of ruins, it was truly remarkable to see it preserved to what ever extent possible (one only wishes the protection had started prior to the days of marble and material pilfering), while the bustle of the city operates around it. There’s so much to see, and we really only glazed the surface. The few days were a great highlight.
From Naples, we caught the Circumvesuviana train to Sorrento. The plan was to use Sorrento as a base to see the Amalfi Coast and Capri. It served this purpose well – it is the perfect gateway to see both Amalfi and Capri when you don’t have time (or can’t afford) to stay in those places.
Sorrento was mass tourism on steroids. You may think of it as a quaint little place on the peninsula jutting out from Naples, but in reality it’s the largest retirement village in Britain. We had an idea of this before we arrived, but the scale of it was still a shock.
Day one was Amalfi Coast day. We had a few things to sort out in Sorrento first, so we dodged the hoards of tagged and badged tourists obediently following their tour leaders like biblical sheep.
There was a queue to catch the bus to Amalfi, so Em was dispatched to bring back gelato. Brits, Kiwis and Aussies have that innate formality which means they know how to queue. But if you’re Italian, you go straight to the front when the bus comes.
What a bus trip. The road around the coast through glamorous Positano to Amalfi makes the Treble Cone mountain road seem very tame indeed. The driver to Amalfi was fairly easy going and we soaked up the incredible view and the sheer drops below.
On the contrary, it’s hard to describe the trip back to Sorrento. But imagine that running the country had made Berlusconi late for a bunga bunga party and he had hijacked a bus to get himself there. That was our bus driver. It was much better when it got dark, cause we couldn’t see over the edge.
As for Amalfi itself, we just wanted to have a relaxing day after the perils of Naples. So we found a recommended restaurant on the beach and stayed there for a four hour lunch, finishing with limoncello. Fortunately we had to wait a little while to get on Berlusconi’s bus for the return journey – vital digesting time.
Day two was Capri day. At €34 per person for a return ferry trip to Capri, it’s not a cheap day, but it is a ‘must do’. Once on the island, I was keen on catching the gondola funicular thing from Marina Grande to Capri township, but we inadvertently ended up on the walkway, climbing the steps instead (in the heat). I wasn’t smiling when we reached Capri, as many of the obedient biblical sheep had somehow made it there as well. (I realise we too are tourists – it’s just that we are a little more inconspicuous…) Many of the flock were enjoying an aperitif at the Piazza Umberto for an eye-watering price.
It soon became apparent why there was such a bottleneck in Capri – the bus drivers were on strike for the day (including the funicular thing). Being Italy, there is no way of finding this out until you arrive. This meant that the average day tripper found themselves stranded in Capri and unable to go off and explore the rest of the island. Only the groups/flocks with private coaches and guides/shepherds were escaping.
We ran through our options and decided it was going to be a miserable day if we stayed in Capri township, so we found a taxi to drive us to Anacapri (we weren’t walking in the heat). It meant spending an unforeseen €30 on taxis, but it also meant that we could wander Anacapri with barely any other tourists (the lack of buses keeping the masses stranded in Capri).
We suffered an ordinary lunch alongside a package deal group from Aussie (who we assumed were from Bonnie Doon). Then the day got much much better…
The Villa of San Michele in Anacapri was a standout. Neither of us knew anything about it beforehand, so it came as an unexpected surprise when we sauntered up to the door and had second thoughts about paying the small entry fee.
In the early 19th century, Swedish doctor Axel Muntha visited Capri and had the crazy idea of building his dream home on the ruins of the Emperor Tiberius’ villa. He largely built the place himself, using the help of some locals. I think various artifacts in the place were dredged up from the ocean at the bottom of the cliff, like the sphinx, although it is all a bit mysterious.
This is all written up in his famous autobiographical work The Villa of San Michele (which I purchased on the way out, but am only up to the second chapter). The best part of the villa is the gardens, where we were quite happy to wander. A fascinating bloke and an amazing place…
“It is all too fantastic to be translated into written words, you would besides not believe me if I tried to do so. I hardly know myself where the dream ended and reality began… You may ask the granite sphinx who lies crouching on the parapet of the chapel in San Michele. But you will ask in vain. The sphinx has kept her own secret for five thousand years. The sphinx will keep mine.”
We met Giacomo the Italian on a sea kayaking excursion in Alaska last year and got to know him over a few dinners. We learnt Giacomo was an actor and performer who also taught and produced opera. He told us how he tends to be cast as the serial killer in his productions because “his face is so unusual”. We stayed in touch and let him know of our plans in Italy. Although he alternates his time between Rome and Milan, he suggested we join him for his production of Don Giovanni in Naples. So we booked the train from Florence and away we went.
There’s no shortage of literature bagging Naples and giving all sorts of advice to tourists to be careful of this and that. Naturally, this was all in the back of the mind when booking a hotel. We asked Giacomo for suggestions, but the hotel he frequents was substantially out of our budget. Turning to Trip Advisor, we went with ‘number 14 rated’ UNA Napoli, as it was close to the train station. Reviews said the hotel was great, but just not to visit the city.
Naples is a different place and may as well be a different country compared to northern Italy. First impressions reminded me of arriving in Hanoi, Vietnam. However, in Hanoi the traffic follows a kind of pattern. There’s no pattern in Naples, except that you don’t obey the road rules. It took us ages to cross the main road to the hotel with our bags, but we got there eventually.
I had read that Naples had cleaned up its rubbish problem. If that’s true, it must’ve been pretty bad before! At midnight, we watched the rubbish truck come down the street. The truck was followed by a bobcat scooping up loose rubbish into big piles to put into the truck. The bobcat was followed by a small sweeping truck. Finally, the small truck was followed by men on foot with leaf blowers and brooms. The ‘Naples waste management issue’ has been around a while and peaked in the summer of 2008. The rubbish collection and dumping are controlled by the Camorra, the powerful local mafia, who supposedly make 20 billion euros a year from the rubbish industry in Campania. The Camorra have taken action to try and maintain their stranglehold on the landfills and collection of rubbish (allegedly including deliberately dumping rubbish in the streets). The Berlusconi government has been credited with cleaning up the problem – the army was called in at one point to pick up rubbish (like Grammar boys on detention, but probably less effective). Unfortunately the city and its people have paid a heavy price for the problem, including much higher risks of cancer due to the burning of rubbish containing nasty chemicals. But enough of that.
We made it to the Museo Archiologico Nazionale di Napoli (Italy’s main archeological museum) in plenty of time for Don Giovanni and found Giacomo, who was very pleased to see us, but also flat out organising his performance. Without the slick ponytail we knew him with, and wearing a “the good, the bad, and the ugly” t-shirt, he was at his fashionable Italian best.
The opera was fantastic and something very memorable for us. This was a casual, free performance (they did three over two days) and the audience of around 100 either sat on the floor or stood around the room, which housed some marble statues. The actors were all professionals from the Naples region and the girls wore dresses originally owned by Giacomo’s Grandma. Of course the voices were incredible, but the acting wasn’t bad either. At times Em and I exchanged glances from our front row possy, wondering how many layers of clothing were going to be shed… It was a great way to see opera (not that I have really seen much opera), but something has to be said for being so close to the action. Here are some photos and a short clip of the performance filmed on the iPhone (which will certainly not do justice to the voices).
The lunchtime performance meant plenty of time to explore the rest of Naples.
We wandered around the Museum for a bit, seeing the ‘must sees’. Em was losing interest until she stumbled into the ‘Secret Room’ displaying pornographic drawings and sculptures recovered from excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum (read lots of penises).
Some more aimless wandering through the Centro Storico to the water, followed by gazing at Mt Vesuvius.
The best thing to do in Naples is just to watch life go by – the crazy scooters, the heated discussions, the even more heated Sunday football. We found a place overlooking the water and serving authentic Napoli pizza and even managed to get service before the TV was changed to the football and all work stopped completely.
Naples is a crazy place. It has lots of problems and is not surprisingly avoided by most visitors to Italy. Nonetheless, it has an energy to it, not like any other city we have seen. Em would say I’m being too generous here. But I think if you want to experience all of Italy, you can’t skip Naples.
A house in Tuscany was one of the few things we had actually booked before we left home. It sounded glamorous, but it was set to be one of our cheapest accommodation weeks, having chosen the start of ‘off-season’ at the end of September and getting a two person discount.
We knew very little about the area, but had decided we wanted to be near Siena, having heard good things. The house was a little tricky to find, being un-google-mappable and basically completely in the middle of nowhere. By our generation’s terms, that means no mobile coverage whatsoever, no shops and only one other person sighting (who didn’t speak a word of English). Whilst this sounds blissful to some, we had hoped to spend some quiet time booking our itinerary for France during this week, but it wasn’t to be with no service on the trusty iPad. We were also without reading material and needed to track down a book shop asap. Nevertheless, we knew we could make it work.
The house was built in 1800 and was ‘rustic’. Rustic was also a little creepy at times, not helped by the resident pigs and their odd noises at night. The one day during the week which we decided to spend at the house, said pigs decided to make an escape. We were sitting having breakfast in the field beside the house, when mummy pig trotted out onto the grass from the driveway. We stared at each other for a minute, before she made herself busy munching grass. Not seeing any harm, we stayed put whilst keeping one eye on her activities. When we heard more trotting on the stones, we looked up to see a considerably larger pig had also escaped, accompanied by two piglets. It became quickly apparent that larger pig was in fact boar with tusks, and he was stomping, snorting and erratic. I had promptly sized up a large terracotta pot next to us and decided I could definitely get inside it if he charged. The moment I glimpsed trepidation in Alex’s eyes (he says he wasn’t scared but I beg to differ: there was real fear in his pupils) I was up and ready to make my move. Agro boar made his charge, as Alex instructed me to sit down…luckily changing his direction to circle to the side of us and resume his stomping. As soon as the path was clear to reach the house without coming too close to the piglets we busted a move, watching in humor once on the safety of the porch.
Our seemingly ridiculous encounter was validated that evening, when the non-English speaking farm dude appeared and huffed somewhat reluctantly at the escapees, who were still making themselves at home around the pool. We had ventured outside again when there hadn’t been any sign of angry boar, though closer to the house this time. He gestured in Italian towards the pigs and towards the house, which we gathered meant we needed to go inside. We watched from up the stairs as he enticed them back with food, angry boar still stomping and kicking up the stones as he demo’d his way back towards his home paddock. Farm dude pointed to angry boar and said “maniaco”…which loosely translates to ‘mad’. I took that as justification of my fear. Alex was still just laughing about my pot-hiding plan.
Pig vs Panda (not angry boar)
We used our Solvicille base to visit the surrounding hill towns in our Fiat Panda (the Italian rental car of choice). Alex will confirm that he did in fact state during this week that my navigating was “amazing”, and that we had not a single argument regarding directions or driving as some may expect. Maybe it’s some kind of post-engagement bliss period, or maybe we’re just *that* compatible (ha!). This was even after I confidently took him through a narrow forest road in the dark, a couple of dirt roads in avoidance of highways, and our one non-road (which can be blamed entirely on google maps).
Our first experience with Siena was the night we arrived, when we attempted to navigate its busy roads in search of a supermarket. Apart from a brief departure into some confusing residential streets, we managed to find a decent sized store with free carpark. We ventured back there the day after to take in the sights of the city centre. We found a reasonable sized bookshop, enjoyed some ‘pici’ (the Tuscan pasta), and sat and admired the Duomo. We probably should have gone inside but, unlike the one in Florence, there was a queue to pay a charge to enter, and we were starting to lose track of the differences between all of the cathedrals we had been to. We thought we’d save the money for the Sistine Chapel.
Siena’s Duomo – a black & white Romanesque cathedral
San Gimignano (we never called it by its name, so I think this is how it’s spelt!) was a neat place. There had already been ridiculous amounts of gelato consumed thus far in Italy, but discovering the good stuff or a unique flavour still made for a treat. In SG Alex had the great taste experience of rosemary & raspberry gelato – which was surprisingly delicious. We found a great spot on a balcony overlooking the countryside for some antipasti and managed to soak up some Tuscan rays.
Volterra was really windy and fairly quiet the day we went. We climbed the (narrow ancient stairs of the) 1208AD tower of the town hall to take in the view, though we could barely keep our eyes open into the wind. (The town hall has a similar look to that of Montepulciano, but the scale of Monte’s, positioned at the front of its larger square would make it more impressive.) The views out over the countryside are always something to take in. The novelty of all these towns perched above everything and surrounded by their immense walls didn’t really wear off. After wandering the cobbled lanes and a large grassy park, we ended up finding a spot with coffee and wifi and sorted out some pressing bookings for when the week was over. The ‘admin’ sorting can be a mission but has to be done of course. We headed home in the dark for dinner – we made the most of having a kitchen this week and cooked up a big bolognese, which fed us two nights, omelette, and an attempt at recreating pici with pesto, a la the Cinque Terre.
Looking through to Volterra’s town hall
From the first lane we walked onto from the carpark, it became apparent that Montepulciano would likely be our favorite of the
hill towns. We started the morning at a real coffee shop, returning after they’d kindly changed my notes into coins for the parking machine minutes earlier. We ‘took our coffee’ as the Italians do – standing at the bar for cheaper than the seated price. It was good, and meant a good start for Monte’ in my book. The biggest difference here were the shops and restaurants. There weren’t dozens of places selling the same tourist-targeted product and tourist-targeted restaurants. Instead we found amazing original leather brands, clothes boutiques and great wine shops (of course). I think if our travels ended after Italy, then Alex and I both would have left there with a bag and/or wallet and perhaps a case of wine.
Ultimate hill town
We climbed Monte’s ‘Palazzo Comunale’ (town hall) as well, which has a terrace along the top. The square (Piazza Grande)which it overlooked was very cool, with a great old well and a cathedral with an awesome exposed brick facade. For lunch we found a unique little restaurant (Osteria Acquacheta) overflowing with locals and enjoyed one of our best Italian lunches of wood fired crostini with pate, pecorino cheese laced with truffle and duck ragu pici. Alex was desperate to have the local Bistecca alla Florentina t-bone steak, but at $70NZ I had to draw the line. Yes, to answer your thoughts, we have done nothing this trip but eat (but it’s been a long time since red meat!) All in all a great day!
Montepulciano Palazzo Comunale
Unfortunately it was a bit overcast during the week, so we didn’t catch much of the famed ‘Tuscan sun’. The farm house wasn’t quite the Tuscany we imagined, but it was great to experience the hill towns and have the freedom of a car without lugging around our bags on trains. We decided if we were ever lucky enough to make it to the area again some day, Montepulciano or its surrounds would be the pick of places to stay.
We gave ourselves four hours to see Pisa on the way to Florence, doing the left luggage thing at the train station.
It started raining as we arrived, meaning business picked up for the gents selling umbrellas to tourists (illegally). They literally lined the streets. We saw a few tourists giving in (either to the rain, or the sales pitch) to buy them. Guess they didn’t know about the hefty fines that can be imposed on tourists for buying from unlicensed street sellers? It’s true – up to 7,000 euros!
First stop of course was the crooked Tower. It’s one of those things – you’ve seen it thousands of times in pictures, but when you see it in the flesh it’s fairly impressive. Em wouldn’t let me get creative with any poses. Everyone does the holding the tower up thing – is this the most posed at site anywhere in the world?! We decided to bypass a trip to the top of the Tower, saving the admission fee and the time in the queue.
We unexpectedly found the whole area (the Piazza del Duomo) quite cool, with the Duomo and Baptistry next to the Tower. That Duomo would be in my ‘top five churches’ (behind St Pauls in Malta and St Marks Basilica in Venice), as the sparse interior suited my acute taste for church design. The Baptistry was also worth the visit, even just to hear the crazy acoustics (the ticket guy sings a few notes every half hour).
Cheap lunch in Pisa, then back on the train to Florence. Arrived at Santa Maria Novella chaos station in the torrential rain – not so much fun. Welcoming party was an army of more incredibly excited umbrella dudes.
We arrived soaking at our nicest apartment yet – we struck it lucky and got a last minute big discount on a fancy duplex close to the center of town. Owner Barbara gave us the run down on everything to do. That evening, Em went gaga over the asparagus truffle oil pasta at the excellent La Cucina del Garga across the road from our apartment.
Next day we hit up Florence’s indoor market for pici, parmesan, prosciutto and other ingredients. The parmesan guy took a shine to Em and hacked off a large piece for her, insisting she would want that much after trying it.
Florence’s grand Duomo was free to visit, with its impressive dome (remembering they couldn’t stress-test the materials back then, and it hasn’t collapsed) and facade built over hundreds of years and improved over many more hundred.
We had a time-slot to visit the the mammoth Uffizi Gallery and its mass of Renaissance works, courtesy of the Medici banking boys who turned their usurious dollars into art. We added to our growing repertoire of viewed Caravaggio and Ninja Turtle works.
We squeezed through the crowd on the famous Ponte Vecchio bridge, and watched rowers cruising up and down a little stretch of Arno River.
The next day we did the Accademia di Belle Arti Firenze, housing Michelangelo’s David, and hypothesised as to why Micky didn’t endow Dave with a bit more marble in the nether region. Seriously, Dave’s hands and head are abnormally large, which is thought to be because the statue was originally intended to go on the roof of the Cathedral (angles etc). So why not the other bits? That small issue aside, Micky did a stellar job.
In the evening we wandered up to the Piazzale Michelangelo, with views right across Florence.
Being our last night in Florence (yes sadly only three) and still using engagement as an excuse to celebrate once we saw the awesome menu, we found Trattoria Baldovino where we had one of our best food experiences in Italy. The food buffs can see the menu here. I had the Galletto ruspante al mattone – free-range chicken marinated in oil, lemon, herbs and spices, grilled with a brick on top. Hard to believe a whole chicken, incredibly delicious, for €12.50. Em had the Tuscan bangers and mash – trio of little artisanal Tuscan sausages served with a truffle mash – also excellent.
Two days in Florence isn’t really enough, but we were happy with the bits we saw. Probably on the ‘come back to’ list if ever a chance.
The Cinque Terre was one of those places we should have booked months in advance, so we were lucky to get an apartment in Monterosso only one week out.
As the name suggests, the Cinque Terre is made up of five towns on Italy’s west coast just above La Spezia, each of which is perched on the cliff above the ocean. With the surrounding terraced vineyards, the setting is spectacular and the area has become a big tourist destination in summer. They had a massive flood in October last year and nine people lost their lives, but we found no traces of the devastation.
From Verona, we trained to Milan and then changed to an intercity train that runs to Genoa and then down to the five towns through an impressive series of tunnels, finishing in La Spezia.
This wasn’t such a good apartment and it was one of our most expensive… The owner didn’t speak a word of English, so we wouldn’t be getting any free tips (given we could barely work out what she wanted us to do with the rubbish). The apartment was on top of a restaurant, so come 6am an army of noisy Italians wheeling trolleys (on cobblestones) full of ice and fish turned up at our doorstep. We looked out our window to the church bell (which didn’t bother us, except every fifteen minutes) and the train ran across a viaduct 20 meters away. Actually one day I thought Em was taking her suitcase for a walk in the lounge, but it was a tourist in the square down below. All that said, the place was very quiet between midnight and 6am if you were a sound sleeper (the key to this turned out to be lots of walking + wine).
The main attraction of the area is walking the ancient path between each of the towns. From our base in Monterosso al Mare the order of towns was: Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. Monterosso is probably the least enchanting of the five, but it served us well as a base.
Day 1 we were intent on walking the coastal path from one end to the other and catching the train back. Shortly after beginning the steep ascent out of Monterosso, the heat kicked in and we were both quite glad that we’d had a week in the Dolomites to sort out the legs. The paths were busy and some of our fellow path-walkers were really not suited to any walking, let alone the Cinque Terre. Not that we are highly-tuned athletes by any means, but it is baffling why some people pick this as their holiday and then decide they can manage the paths! Must be in Rick Steves’ Guide to Europe or something.
The towns are a bit touristy, although still have plenty of charm and some great eating spots.
We made it to the middle town of Corniglia, having taken our time, and started towards the fourth. All was going well and we must have been almost there, before all hopes of getting any further were dashed by some walkers coming the other way saying the path was closed due to a landslide. Given you pay to use the path, you might expect some kind of notice with this information before you climb down 300 steps from the previous town. Nope. Not in Italy.
We gave up and caught the train back for dinner. Dinner in Monterosso was at ‘number 12 Trip Advisor ranked’ Trattoria Da Oscar. Em discovered the awesomeness of local Trofie (tight twisted pasta with pesto) and I tried to choke myself on a plate of anchovies in white wine sauce.
Perhaps it was the 6 am ice/fish army alarm, but we really didn’t feel like walking on day two. Following some procrastination, we trained to the middle town where we had terminated our walking the day before. Then we cheated by taking the free shuttle to the top of the road, avoiding the 300 steps going up and rebellion by Em. From there, we enjoyed some of the best walking of our whole trip, Dolomites included.
With the coastal path being closed between Corniglia and Manarola, the only walking option was straight up to Volastra (somehow ditched from inclusion as a Cinque Terre town). The walking was tough, but this meant far fewer tourists on the trail. We found growers tending to vines and grapes on the precarious terrain and one gave us a handful to munch on. Views from Volastra = vast.
From Volastra, we took an uncharacteristic risk and left the main trail to follow an unofficial ‘panoramic path’, expecting that we were going to be sprung by an Italian at any moment asking for a fee for crossing his land. This never happened and we walked for 40 minutes between vines and down a ridge without seeing one single other person. It dropped us right to the main street of Manarola. If I hadn’t already proposed, I could have easily done it anywhere on that path.
The walk to the last town was only 20 minutes and we caught the ferry back, finding that some of the best views of the towns were from the water.
Next morning, we were back on the train to Pisa Centrale.
Hiring a Fiat Panda and taking to Italy’s autostradas could have been a fatal move for any couple, let alone a couple one day after their engagement. Fortunately Em’s calm but forceful approach to navigation kept things under control as we drove from Verona to Modena (an hour and a bit south).
Fiat Pandas don’t comfortably sit at (or sometimes get to) the speed limit of 130km/h. The result is one lane for Pandas and another faster lane for everyone else. We were happy in the slow lane.
The attraction to Modena was the recently-opened Enzo Ferrari Museum. The Museum is a giant yellow structure (designed to look like the air intake of a Ferrari) built around Enzo Ferrari’s family house.
Inside, the display was less about the cars and Enzo Ferrari himself, and more about the history of the car industry in Modena (home to Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini, Pagani etc, all still having their factories in the area). The history is basically a story of a bunch of guys all building racing cars to go fast and beat their rivals. Sounded like a lot of fun really, but the result was the development of world-renown brands producing high-end racing and sports cars, creating jobs and wealth for the region.
If you don’t like my facts, skip the next paragraph.
Scuderia Ferrari was established in 1929. Ferrari was the sales agent for Alfa Romeo in that area of Northern Italy. Ferrari supplied service and assistance to the few very wealthy owners of Alfa Romeos. Just down the road in Bologna, the Maserati brothers had been producing racing cars since 1926 and moved operations to Modena in 1940. Shortly after, Ferrari produced its first ever Ferrari-branded car, and an Aeautodromo (race track / landing strip) was built in the town in 1950 (for better racing and more fun). This started the enduring rivalry between Ferrari and Maserati, first with racing cars and then with GT cars. To give you some idea of the strength of the region, in 1956 and 1957 the starting line of Formula 1 was made up exclusively of Ferraris and Maseratis. It was the only time in the history of F1 that all the cars were built in the same town.
As for the cars on display, there were some beauties, ranging from a 1914 Alfa Romeo through to a 2012 Italdesign prototype.
Old Enzo was one smooth dude and had a pretty incredible life, as documented in the displays inside his old house (which was mortgaged to buy Enzo his first racing car). He had some successes racing cars, but his ruthless nature was best suited to running the company. He always wore dark sunnies (Raybans – you were very lucky to see him without them), wrote only in purple ink (it reminded him of his father), and never travelled overseas to watch Ferrari races.
After lunch at the Museum, we were back in the Panda to head to Maranello, 20 minutes from Modena. Maranello is home to the Ferrari factory (sadly, you need to own a Ferrari to tour it) and the Museo Ferrari which houses a massive collection of Ferrari F1 and GT cars. But that Saturday was also “Red Night” in Maranello – a massive party to celebrate all things Ferrari.
We looked around the Museo Ferrari, at all the latest and greatest, as well as most of their F1 cars from 1985 to 2011. It’s incredible to see them all lined up and the changes to the aerodynamics – nowadays with all kinds of wings and fins. There was the (very large) wall of Ferrari trophies and we also liked a film showing clips of Ferraris featured in Hollywood movies (with a good looking actress usually).
Once outside, the band was getting warmed up and hundreds of Ferraris were pouring into town. The Police close some of the roads so you can drive fast, and there are several companies who will let you drive a Ferrari of your choice (prices started at €80 for 10 minutes). Didn’t really need to go to the Museum, because every model from the past 15 years was in the car park across the road. Perhaps more bizarre than the cars, were their drivers – an eccentric lot to say the least.
Here’s a few photos and a video of the car park.
I was just happy to get the Panda out of Maranello without scratching any Ferraris, and back to Verona without an argument with the navigator.
Rather than moving around too much, we decided to use Verona as a base for two day trips – one to Lake Garda and one to Modena. Garda is Italy’s largest lake and seems to have a lot to offer by way of great towns and activities, though it often plays second fiddle to the better-known Como. To reach the southern end of Lake Garda it was an easy 40 minute train to Desenzano. It had a nice feel as soon as we started walking in the direction of the lake – nice tree-lined, clean streets and tidy houses.
With a little more time we would have had more of a look around Desenzano. We hadn’t found much info about it, but it turned out to have a great atmosphere and there looked to be some nice restaurants and shops. The lake setting sucked me in straight away – with the small harbour of boats, a little light house and the water stretching off in the distance, I was at home once again. Wanting to get out there, we jumped straight onto a ferry heading to Sirmione. The ferry system on the lake was great – a mix of fast and slow boats heading to all of the towns regularly throughout the day.
Sirmione was humming with activity, but if you looked past the hoards of day-trippers it was really very cool. There was a maze of little lanes, copious gelato shops, an awesome water-bound castle, and plenty of little nooks down to the lake edge. After sharing a quick pizza, we started wandering.
Alex had read about the Grotto of Catullo located on the tip of the Sirmione peninsula. Knowing nothing about it I duly followed him, and discovered once we arrived that it was the ancient Roman ruins of a palatial villa from the end of first century BC – start of first century AD. It wasn’t known who lived there (just that they were rich – go figure), and it is the largest in northern Italy. As with most of these sites, it had been pillaged for materials and worn down over the years, but a fair amount of it was still standing. I have no idea why anyone who didn’t have at least four families under one roof would need something so big, but apparently someone did. A lot of it was grand hallway and pools of different temperatures, but I suspect the best thing about it has always been its view.
The site was surrounded by acres of olive grove, and had 180 degree views of Lake Garda. Adding to this, on the day we were there the sky was blue, the temperature was perfect and the distance between grotto visitors made it feel as if no one was there. We spent far more time just lazily strolling the paths and soaking in the atmospheric goodness than reading the info signs, and we soon decided it was one of the prettiest places we’d been.
There were some great arches and ruin structures at end of the peninsula, and after some photos we parked up for a bit on a stone bench looking over the lake to enjoy the sunshine. A few people were swimming off the rocks below, but unfortunately the property was well-fenced so we couldn’t get down to get our feet wet.
We’d probably been there for about half an hour without a soul around, when one Alex Mamo wandered towards me where I sat and started to get down on one knee in front of me. I’m not going to lie, I actually thought mid-bend that he was going to stand up again and laugh, and how mean that would be. You may think after ‘all this time’ that I would be expecting a proposal – especially in such a spot – but I was so absorbed in the place and just enjoying the day that it took me completely by surprise. So much so, that when he stayed on his knee and said “Emmy, will you marry me?”, I gracefully replied with “are you serious?” (x5). He later admitted that some sort of pre-question speech may have made me more certain of his seriousness, but his spontaneity (he had no plans of doing it there or on that day) hadn’t allowed him to gather himself for more than just the most important question. I of course eventually found the correct response which was “yes.”
We finally left the grotto with big smiles on our faces when we thought we might get locked in at closing time. It was a great day made especially memorable, and it was hard not to start talking about it all (as we celebrated with giant gelato).
It’s a bit sad, but from the moment we got off the train in Verona I had Elemeno P’s Verona spinning round and round in my head thanks to Em and Andrea. But Italian Verona has a bit more going for it than the Verona in the song.
We’ve stayed in a few apartments now and find them pretty good value for money. Verona turned out to be the best apartment accommodation so far. We were met by young first year uni student Enrico, who practiced his English by explaining all the good stuff in town. His dad Rudolfo then joined us for a coffee and talked about all things Kiwi and Americas Cup. We met Luisa (actually the owner) in the morning for another coffee. Luisa was super interesting – a lawyer who was very well travelled (knew all about the Bay of Islands etc) and was happy to give us her view on Italian life and politics. She even invited us to go skiing in the Dolomites sometime.
Must sees in Verona:
– 1st century Roman Arena (mini Colosseum) used every year for the famous Verona festival (which we just missed). It’s had some pretty amazing concerts over the years – Pink Floyd, The Who, Muse and Pavarotti, who is a native of Modena down the road.
– More street performers. The best was a guy dressed as a baby in a pram. Hard to describe, but very clever.
– Balcony, which is supposedly the one used by Juliet in Shakespeare’s famous romance. Could show you the photo of just the balcony in black and white (very romantic)…
…But the reality was a tiny courtyard jammed with tourists, kids pashing, love notes all over the wall, and people trying to get their ten seconds alone on the balcony. Chances are it’s not even the right balcony.
– Robert Capa Exhibition. This was excellent and my favourite exhibition of the trip. Robert Capa was a Hungarian war photographer, whose work included five wars. His most famous pictures are probably those of the D-Day landings in 1944. Through his work he constantly put himself in unbelievably dangerous spots and once said “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough”. It was the ability to tell a whole story through a single photograph and a five-word caption that makes his work so incredible. In addition to his war photography, he had an illustrious circle of friends and snapped many celebs and other famous names (such as Pablo Picasso).
The best things about Verona:
– The back streets with an abundance of coffee shops and bars hidden away.
– Rustic Veronese cooking.
A great place to see the best of northern Italy.