Since we had some extra time in Venice, we decided to take a daytrip to Padua (or “Padova” in Italian), just a 26-minute train ride away. Padua is a picturesque town of about 214,000 residents, many of them students at the University of Padua — the third oldest university in Europe, one of the most prestigious, and definitely one of the most progressive. It was founded by a group of radical professors from the University of Bologna who wanted to teach without restraints from the church. Galileo taught here for thirty years and was so popular that his students saved up money to purchase his own podium, which was necessary since his lectures became too popular for a typical classroom.
We took a guided tour, which allowed us to view Galileo’s podium, as well as the Anatomical Theater. This theater, the oldest in the world, was built so the public could study dissections. Viewers would have to stand around in this cramped, candlelit room for hours over multiple days. Because dissections were technically still illegal, whenever someone from the church entered, the professor would flip the bed over quickly to hide the body, and everyone would pretend to be doing something else.
In 1678, Elena Cornaro Piscopia, a Venetian noblewoman and mathematician, became the first woman in the world to receive a Ph.D., and unsurprisingly it was here, at the University of Padua. Copernicus, Dante, and Fallopius (yes, the discoverer of the fallopian tube) are some of the university’s other notable alumni.
Besides the university, Padua is just a lovely place to roam around. It has a dense network of arcaded walkways and cobblestone streets. Its town hall building, the Palazzo della Ragione, has the largest roof unsupported by columns in Europe. Right outside the Palazzo is a huge farmers market, second only to the one in Italy’s gastronomic capital of Bologna. Its Scrovegni Chapel, which must be booked in advance to enter, houses some of the most important frescoes in the world. Prato della Valle is an elliptical square and one of the biggest in Europe. In the center is a garden surrounded by a moat, lined by 78 statues of Padua’s citizens.
My favorite part of Padua, however, was the lunch we had at Osteria L’Anfora. In fact, it was the best meal of our entire trip. This discrete (no signage in front!) osteria was packed with Paduans, so we were crammed in the corner at a table with a friendly Italian student and his girlfriend visiting from France. He helped us decipher the handwritten menu — written in only Italian, of course — and taught me how to properly pronounce “bigoli” (bi-go-li, not bi-go-li), the pasta typical of this region. I had the perfectly al dente bigoli with rabbit sausage ragù, while Anthony had a tender oxtail stew served with creamy polenta full of flavor. I would return to Padua just for meals like this. I didn’t tear up on this trip — which is slightly concerning because I cry over everything — but if I did, it would have been at Osteria L’Anfora.
After about five and a half hours in Padua, it was time to return to Venice. It was just the right amount of time to do the town justice but crave a little more action in touristy Venice. We caught a northbound tram with the day passes we had bought at the station earlier and returned just in time to make our train back to Venezia Santa Lucia. Arrivederci, Padova!
Venice is stunning in any season, but if you have a choice, visit in the winter. You’ll have to deal with fewer tourists and might see an eerie fog seductively blanketing the canals. Most importantly, you’ll be visiting at a much more ethical time. In the summer, cruise ship passengers flood Venice every day, and the city’s infrastructure suffocates under the hordes of sightseers. Tourists outnumber Venetians by 140 to 1. Souvenir shops have replaced grocery stores, while luxury hotels have replaced medical offices. When I visited Venice for my second time a few summers ago, I was disappointed by how much the whole place felt like Disneyland or Las Vegas — unabashedly fake and crawling with tacky tourists who are there just to check Venice off their lists rather than to actually learn anything. So we returned this winter for my husband’s birthday and experienced the city the way it should be.
It happened to be Carnevale when we visited, an incredible time to be in Venice. We were there during the first few days of this multi-week celebration, which began with an opening ceremony of glowing floats at night and a costumed gondola parade the following morning. Carnevale brings out the most decadent side of Venice, with people parading around in extravagant costumes and colorful confetti strewn across the pavement.
The tradition of Carnevale began when the Republic of Venice won a victory in the 12th century. To celebrate, Venetians gathered and danced in St. Mark’s Square. Carnevale was celebrated for centuries, and debaucherous revelers donned masks because anything they did while their faces were covered didn’t count. The Holy Roman Empire banned the festival in 1797, and wearing masks was strictly forbidden. Carnevale gradually reappeared in the 19th century, and finally in 1979, the government decided to officially bring it back completely. What surprised us was how egalitarian Carnevale is. Sure, some people spend thousands of euros on elaborate handmade costumes and attend fancy masquerade balls, but other people just buy cheap masks — most likely made in China instead of Venice — from one of the many stands scattered throughout the city. If you want a nice medium, you can also rent authentic costumes for the day and support Italian craftsmanship at a fraction of the cost of purchasing.
If you only have one weekend to experience Carnevale, aim for the final weekend. We went on the first weekend, which felt like a low-key introduction to the festivities. The final weekend has the huge costume competition and entertaining historical reenactments.
My favorite part of Carnevale was just hanging out in St. Mark’s Square and seeing all the costumes. St. Mark’s Basilica and Doge’s Palace are the perfect backdrop. Every afternoon of Carnevale, costumed people parade around, waiting for you to take photos of their hard work.
Tips for future travelers to Venice:
We stayed at 3749 Ponte Chiodo, a charming guest house that we had stayed at four years ago. It’s located in the peaceful neighborhood of Cannaregio, which feels like a world away from the hustle and bustle of St. Mark’s Square but is only a 20-minute walk or leisurely vaporetto ride away. It also has some of the best restaurants in Venice. Our room was on the top floor and had a lovely view of a small canal. The owner Mattias was as helpful as last time, offering restaurant recommendations and encouraging guests to get to know each other during our intimate breakfasts around the dining table each morning. We loved opening up the heavy, dark green front door with our key and walking through a secret garden to reach the entrance of the house, then climbing up a narrow staircase to get to our room after a long day. 3749 Ponte Chiodo was a breath of fresh air — a real home in a city full of monotonous hotel chains.
We ate fairly well on this trip, which is a bit of a surprise because Venice is infamous for being one of the least pleasant cities to eat in Italy. Typically overpriced and inauthentic, restaurants in this small city feel forced to cater to tourists who visit here once and never return. Fortunately, our research led us to perhaps the best meals possible in Venice.
If you’re not eating cicchetti for lunch every day, you failed at Venice. It’s a Venetian lunch tradition to stand at the bar and order an assortment of toast topped with fresh seafood, and pair it with a glass of Prosecco, the wine specialty of this region. A meal for two will cost you roughly €16. We tried a few places for cicchetti, and All’Arco was by far the best, as evidenced by the stream of locals there throughout the day.
Our favorite restaurants for dinner were Osteria Ai Promessi Sposi, Ca D’Oro alla Vedova, and Osteria ai 40 Ladroni, all of which were just a quick walk from our guest house. They’re all osterias, which is my preferred type of eating establishment in Italy. Osterias began as places serving wine and simple food, with concise menus that emphasize local specialties and whatever’s fresh that day. They are cheaper than ristorantes and have that rustic feel you want when you’re in Italy. In Venice, stick to ordering seafood, risotto, squid ink pastas, and tiramisu, paired with a carafe of house wine or Prosecco.
Dal Moro’s Fresh Pasta to Go is a fantastic place for a takeout lunch. It’s essentially fast-casual pasta, but done surprisingly well. Choose your fresh pasta noodles, the sauce, and any toppings. You can watch the pasta being made behind the glass, and when it’s done you just eat it out of a cardboard takeout container. At roughly €7, this is probably the best deal in Venice.
We decided to take a couple of walking tours with a company called La Bussola and were amazed by how many more facts we learned about Venice — and it’s my third time here! Each tour is free, two and a half hours long, and led by passionate graduate students who specialized in some aspect of Venetian culture. We learned that the word “ghetto” comes from Venice, the original Venetians were a bunch of refugees fleeing attack from Germanic tribes, and that Venice was built on wood pilings that have petrified under water without oxygen. One of the tours ended on the rooftop of a fancy department store near the Rialto Bridge that offered a panoramic view of the entire city.
La Bussola also took us to what looked like a modest church from the outside, but entering completely took my breath away. Chiesa di San Pantaleone Martire houses the biggest canvas painting in the world. When you enter, make sure to look up, because an astonishingly three-dimensional painting depicting the martyrdom and apotheosis of St. Pantalon fills the entire ceiling. It was painted on canvas by Fumiani over 24 years, until he fell to his death from the scaffolding as he was giving his painting the finishing touches. Structural features of the church are continued in the architecture of the painting, creating a magnificent visual illusion. Fumiani was a master of perspective. I have been to the Vatican, and I can honestly say that I was more impressed by this than the Sistine Chapel.
If it’s your first time in Venice, make sure to check out at least these tourist attractions:
St. Mark’s Basilica: Book in advance to enter this opulent golden cathedral and symbol of Venetian wealth.
Burano: Take a 45-minute vaporetto ride to this calm, picturesque island of bright colorful homes.
Libreria Acqua Alta: This adorable bookstore stuffs its books into waterproof basins to highlight the flooding that Venice must coexist with. There is now a long line to enter because it recently exploded on social media.
One of the best ways to see Venice is by vaporetto. These water buses travel along the Grand Canal, around the lagoon, and even to the other islands. It’s easy to get lost in Venice, so while walking is often quicker, catching a cheap vaporetto is sometimes a preferable mode of transportation. If you’re under 29, you get a discount through Rolling Venice. We purchased unlimited three-day passes and validated each time we entered a station.
If you’ve known me for a while, you probably know that I tend to cry when I travel. When I fall in love with a place, I either cry because my heart feels so overwhelmed by happiness, or I cry on our last day because I’m devastated that we have to leave. I’m pretty ridiculous. I’ve shed tears all over the world: Istanbul, Cape Town, Paris, Kyoto, Nuremberg… but the place that started it all is Positano, a popular cliffside town on the Amalfi Coast. My first time visiting was in 2015, and after we left I cried for days.
I was so sure I could keep it together this time; there’s no way Positano could still surpass my impossibly high expectations and idealized memories built up over the years. I was completely wrong. In fact, everything was better than last time, even starting with just our journey to Positano. We finally learned that the best way to reach Positano is to take an express train from Rome to Salerno, then a ferry from Salerno to Positano. It’s less hectic than going through Naples or Sorrento, and more pleasant than riding a bus.
We stayed at the same hotel — in the exact same room, in fact — as last time. So much of my attachment to Positano is due to La Tavolozza, a family-run hotel with only six rooms that cost a fraction of the price of all the hotels surrounding it. Why is it so affordable? There is no pool (why would you swim in a pool when you’re right by the sea?), and the WiFi is only strong out on the balcony. But you feel like you’re staying with family here. We stayed in the Blue Room again, which has high ceilings, blue tiled floors, and, most importantly, a huge balcony that we were reluctant to leave every morning. Every time I woke up at La Tavolozza, on our bed facing the view, I couldn’t help but pity every other person in the world. I am my happiest here, it’s as simple as that.
Last time, the only pitfall I noticed in Positano was the food. The few restaurants we tried seemed overpriced and touristy, especially after coming from Rome and Florence. This time, however, I did a little more research and took some suggestions from locals, and we ended up having some of the best meals of our trip. I highly recommend Lo Guarracino, a romantic ristorante off the beaten path, with views of Fornillo Beach. We also enjoyed La Cambusa and Da Vincenzo. When eating on the Amalfi Coast, make sure to stuff yourself with seafood, lemons, and candied oranges.
Speaking of food, the highlight of Positano was our cooking class with Marina in Cucina. We always enjoy cooking classes, but Marina’s home and the friendships we formed during class made this night one of the most memorable nights of my life. Marina lives in a stunning villa up in the hills — a former convent with views of the sea below. She’s a chef but also an interior designer, which is apparent in her tastefully-decorated home and enviable kitchen. We made fresh pasta on the patio, kneading dough, cutting it into strips, and drying the strips on a gorgeous ceramic table hand-crafted in Positano. We snacked on olives tossed with delicious lemon rinds and drank “caprese water” (water steeped with whole tomatoes and fresh basil leaves). We watched Marina make mattafama (bread salad), limoncello chicken, and a lemon ricotta dessert. And then the nine of us spent the next few hours dining together on her patio, late into the night. Unlike our other cooking classes abroad, we learned tips that we can actually bring back home, such as tilting the pan when heating oil so that the garlic doesn’t burn, and topping pasta with candied orange instead of cheese for a different flavor. Marina was able to use so many ingredients from her garden; it was inspiring to watch her go outside to collect basil or lemons and incorporate them into the dish we ate just a few minutes later. This is why Italian food is so good.
Besides the cooking class, the other new activity we did on the Amalfi Coast this time was take a daytrip to Capri. We didn’t initially have much interest in Capri, as it’s known as an island for rich vacationers, but we completely underestimated how charming Capri is. We rented a small boat around the island and finally understood the hype. From jagged coastline to dramatic rocks jutting out of the water to grottos that look like vaginas, Capri is just really sexy. After our boat ride, we took a hair-bending bus ride through the town of Anacapri, where we rode a funicular up to the top of Monte Solaro. It’s a single-seat funicular, so it’s pretty funny because you have to ride up by yourself, and then stare awkwardly at the people riding back down on the other side. The views are well worth it, though. There’s a cafe and gardens to explore at the top. After the funicular, we caught another hair-bending bus ride to Capri Town, which is the glitzier part of Capri, with designer shops and famous hotels.
When we returned to Positano after our daytrip, we felt like we had returned home. Positano is such a small town, yet I never felt bored, the way I feel bored in practically every other city that has fewer than 8 million people. There was so much to do. We hired a professional photographer via Flytographer to commemorate our second wedding anniversary. We bought colorful ceramic dishes with lemons on them, an Amalfi Coast specialty. We read books on our balcony. We hung out on the pebbly beach (in the free section because we’re cheap) early in the morning to beat the crowds. We watched the World Cup at a beachfront bar and mourned when Japan lost. We went grocery shopping at Delicatessen, a small grocery shop just down the stairs from our hotel that has fresh meat and huge wheels of cheese. We worked off all our pasta by walking up and down the staircases weaving through Positano — the only way to get around town. I could have done this forever.
By the time we had to leave on our fourth day, I had been emotionally preparing and told myself I wouldn’t cry. I was so ready for it — but as we checked out of La Tavolozza, we had a long chat with Paola, my favorite of the family members who runs the hotel. During our stay, we had seen her every day, either on our way out or right before breakfast, when she would bring a tray of cappuccino and croissants to our balcony. She told us such heartwarming things about Positano, how much she enjoys seeing return guests, and why her family loves what they do. So of course I cried like a baby as we hugged her good-bye.
When I booked this trip, I had assumed it would be our last time in Positano. This was actually the reason we stayed for so long; I was hoping I’d eventually get sick of it. But, turns out, it’s impossible to get sick of Positano. I can still think of more things we need to do here, like take a daytrip to Ravello, go hiking above Amalfi, swim at the Fiordo di Furore, and have drinks at Villa Treville. Just as Francesca (Paola’s mother) told us when we checked out of La Tavolozza three years ago, “There’s something magical about Positano, isn’t there?” We will be back. I don’t know when, and I don’t know how, but it’s going to happen. My happiness depends on it.
Our original plan was to take a daytrip to Civita di Bagnoregio, a small hillside town in Tuscany that we’d never been to, but we decided to revisit Florence instead, for a few of reasons: to see my favorite sunset again, eat at one of our favorite restaurants, and climb the campanile (bell tower) of the Duomo, which we had to skip when we were here three years ago. Looking back now, I’m not sure if this was the best decision – we probably should have explored a new town – but Florence is never a bad idea.
Since we wanted to climb the campanile in the early morning to avoid the summer heat and crowds, we decided to stay overnight and rented an apartment in the neighborhood of Oltrarno (“other side of the Arno River”), similar to Rome’s Trastevere. Our apartment was on the top floor of an 18th-century building that once housed officials of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. It had luxuriously high ceilings, beautiful terracotta floors, and dozens of bookshelves – but no air conditioning, and a bathroom with one of those doorless showers that gets the entire bathroom wet. In other words, we felt like true Florentines.
If you only do four things in Florence, do these:
Watch the sunset from Piazzale Michelangelo. This sunset has ruined me for all other sunsets (I’m looking at you, Santorini). There’s something so magical about Florence’s sea of iconic red roofs, massive dome dominating the skyline, the colors of the sunset reflected in the Arno River bisecting the city, and the purple mountains in the background. Get there early to claim a good spot.
Check out Mercato Centrale, an impressive food hall and gastronomic dream. Designed by the same architect who built the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan, this huge iron-and-glass complex has two floors: fresh groceries on the bottom floor, and the best food court you’ve ever seen on the top floor. Anthony and I spent a few hours on the top floor, slowly eating our way through various vendors. Each vendor specializes in a type of food (mostly Tuscan). Everything you could ever want is here – a cheese station, a pasta station, a truffle station, a beer station, a gelato station, a seafood station, a burger station, a French fry station, even a dim sum station. Everything is made fresh, and vendors use ingredients from downstairs. Did I mention that workers come around to bring you wine right to your table? Did I also mention that there’s a whole section for a cooking class, where each participant gets their own cooking station?? Next time I’m in Florence, this is going to be the first thing I do.
Climb the campanile in the morning for a more pleasant experience; climb it in the late afternoon for better photos. Book online and prepare for 414 steps. The climb is pretty easy, since there are several stops along the way. You’ll get to see the dome and all of Florence through a fenced rooftop.
Eat at Osteria Antica Mescita San Niccolò, our favorite restaurant abroad. Last time we were in Florence, we stumbled upon this restaurant and fell in love. Three years later, the menu has changed slightly, and the prices are a bit higher, but the meal was probably even better than our first time here. We shared slices of pecorino and honey, a plate of grilled beef marinated in balsamic vinegar, roasted potatoes, salted spinach, a ricotta cheesecake topped with chocolate shavings, and a half liter of house red wine. All of this was €53.
If you have extra time in Florence:
Visit the Leonardo da Vinci Museum. Three years ago, we stayed at a hotel located above this museum but were always too busy to visit. Anthony was determined not to make the same mistake. This delightful museum has a spectacular array of da Vinci’s inventions, and you’ll leave with a much better appreciation of his genius.
Relax in Giardino Bardini, a garden that offers panoramic views of Florence. And nature, if you’re into that. During the spring, it’s particularly lovely because the trellis is filled with wisteria. Be careful of mosquitoes.
Check out Palazzo Strozzi, a modern art museum housed in a former palace. Currently, there’s a huge metal slide that spirals down the inner courtyard.
Have breakfast or a coffee at La Ménagère, an adorable restaurant, cafe, cocktail bar, and flower shop. It’s a great place to hang out.
Visit the Baptistery. This small basilica often gets overlooked — it has to compete with the neighboring Duomo, after all — but inside is a stunning ceiling, inspired by Byzantine mosaics.
Florence didn’t hit me quite as hard as it did three years ago. It’s an undeniably beautiful city, but after our 24 hours here, I was ready to return to the chaos and diversity of Rome. Florence has so many of my favorite things – my favorite restaurant, my favorite sunset, my favorite food hall, and my favorite cathedral – it’s odd that it isn’t also my favorite city. But whatever the reason, I’m glad we got to experience it again.
Rome, like any metropolitan city, deserves multiple trips. This was my third time in Rome (I visited once as a baby to visit my grandparents, and again a few years ago with Anthony), and each time has gotten better and better. We stayed in a more interesting neighborhood, redid our favorite activities, and checked off some bucket-list items that we hadn’t been able to do last time. Here’s some advice for Rome that we learned on this trip:
Stay in Trastevere. This is easily the most charming neighborhood in Rome, with maze-like cobblestone streets that wind past pretty churches and colorful, crumbling buildings. Trastevere means “beyond the Tiber River”, and those who grew up here have a sense of pride similar to those who grew up in Brooklyn — they consider themselves Trasteverini before they consider themselves Romans. Like Brooklyn, Trastevere is also a foodie destination, with some of the best restaurants in Rome right around the corner from our apartment. It’s convenient to most touristy sites, so we were able to walk almost everywhere.
Although the secret has been out for a while and Trastevere is now packed with tourists and exchange students at night, we still felt like locals staying there as we entered a nondescript door and walked up three narrow flights of stairs to reach our apartment. Our host welcomed us with a bottle of wine and a binder full of recommendations, which I followed diligently. Our apartment had lovely terracotta floors, vaulted ceilings, and a tiny balcony. We took afternoon siestas and cooked pasta leftovers in the compact kitchen.
Visit the Colosseum and Roman Forum as early as possible. Last time, we were there midday, and it was awful. The heat was so bad that I was too miserable to appreciate any history and spent the entire time jumping from shady spot to shady spot. This time, we booked tickets for the first entrance of the day, which meant fewer tourists and much cooler temperatures.
Two other places to visit as early as possible are the Pantheon and Spanish Steps. The Pantheon does not require tickets as it is a public church, so we got there before it opened and were among the first to enter. The Pantheon is one of the best-preserved Ancient Roman buildings in the world, mainly because it has been in continuous use throughout its history, first as a temple and then as a church. The Pantheon is blatant proof that one can only survive if one adapts. Its most famous feature is its huge coffered concrete dome, with an oculus that opens up to the sky and lets rainwater in. Built two thousand years ago, this dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.
Visit Piazza Navona at dusk. Though inundated with tourists and street performers, this lively square has always been one of my favorite parts of Rome. It is built on the site of a stadium from the 1st century, and was later transformed into a stunning public square filled with Baroque Roman architecture, such as the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers). Dusk is the most romantic time to come, when the marble glows a soft rose color, Romans and tourists are relaxed after the hot day, and musicians start playing corny American love songs. I even teared up here on our last night, when some guy played “My Heart Will Go On”, a song that I typically hate — but then again, everything sounds better in Italy.
Visit the Trevi Fountain in the morning and in the evening. This fountain is what I was most excited to see in Rome. It was closed for renovation last time, so I made sure it was the first thing we did when we returned. At night, it’s magical, but early in the morning, you can better appreciate all the intricate details of the marble and the crisp blue of the water.
See Bernini and Caravaggio at the Galleria Borghese. Advanced reservations are required, and each ticket includes a mandatory guided tour, which we enjoyed tremendously. Our quirky guide focused on just a few of the pieces throughout the museum and really helped us appreciate the sculptor Bernini and painter Caravaggio.
Take a food tour with Eating Italy. We signed up for a four-hour Twilight in Trastevere tour, which took us to seven different places around our neighborhood, from a secret wine cellar that once housed bronze sculptures from the ancient Roman times, to a 90-year-old cookie shop that’s won dozens of awards yet has no signage in front, to a takeout spot that specializes in Roman street food specialties. As usual, the food tour was my favorite activity of our entire stay. It’s a great way to meet other people, learn about the culture, and be introduced to places we’d never find on our own.
I ate carbonara every day but never got sick of it. Our tour guide explained that there’s a reason you can eat pasta every day in Italy but not feel bad about yourself; it’s just made differently here. Less processed.
Here are some of my favorite eateries we tried:
Osteria Da Zi Umberto: This trattoria, just a couple of blocks from our apartment, was filled with locals. Reservations are a must, though we lucked out with a last-minute table, and the carbonara was the best I had on the trip. Anthony tried (and fell in love with) trippa alla romana (Roman-style tripe!).
Trapizzino: This is a new trend in Rome. It takes a traditional street food, pizza bianca (plain pizza dough), creates a pocket with it, and stuffs it with classic Italian dishes, such as rosemary chicken or veal tongue with anchovies. It was my favorite way to eat Roman pizza. Trapizzino has been so successful that it’s expanded to multiple locations across Italy.
Da Enzo al 29: This popular restaurant is usually booked weeks in advance, but we were able to try it because our food tour guide is friends with the staff. I had a dish of burrata, prosciutto, and grilled eggplant. Da Enzo deserves the hype!
Gelateria La Romana: We revisited this gelateria after discovering it on our trip last time, and we are happy to say that the gelato is still as delicious, sustainable, and dirt-cheap (2.50 euros for two scoops! You’re not going to find a better deal anywhere else!) as we remembered.
Some other tips for dining in Rome:
Stick to trattorias for your main meals. Trattorias specialize in traditional Italian food and are more casual than ristoranti. Order a carafe of house wine and enjoy incredible food for cheap. It’s the best way to experience Roman cuisine, and the rustic atmosphere is exactly what you came to Rome for.
Eat breakfast the Italian way: standing up at the counter, drinking a cappuccino and eating a pastry. Even if your hotel provides free breakfast, I urge you to skip it and head to the nearest coffee bar instead. Those hotel breakfast buffets usually consist of poor-quality cured meats and cheeses, old pastries, cereal and yogurt options, and coffee that no self-respecting Italian would drink. Trust me, they’re catering to lazy Americans. You’ll have a much better experience waking up early and surrounding yourself with Italians on their way to work.
Though it was not my first time in Rome, it was the first time I fell in love with it. I’d always been somewhat intimidated by it as a city, preferring genteel Florence or glitzy Milan. But this time, we did Rome properly. We felt so at home here; some of our most memorable experiences were just watching the World Cup at a couple of our neighborhood spots, cheering with locals and tourists alike. If we ever decide to live abroad, Rome is Anthony’s first choice — and it’s hard for me not to agree.
The second stop on our five-country trip was Palermo, Sicily, and it just confirmed (once again) that Italy is my favorite country. This is actually somewhat ironic because many Sicilians and mainland Italians don’t even consider Sicily part of Italy. Set right in between Europe, Northern Africa, and the Arab world, Sicily has been influenced (and invaded) by many cultures throughout history. To say Sicily is simply Italian is as reductive as saying Hawaii is American. Sicily barely saw the Renaissance that Italy is so famous for, yet its diversity in people, architecture, and cuisine exemplifies a cultural richness that cannot be found anywhere else.
We’d been to southern Italy before, so we prepared ourselves for utter chaos upon arrival, but the transportation from the airport to our apartment couldn’t have been smoother. Right in front of the airport exit was a desk dedicated to the Prestia e Comande bus service, where we bought round-trip tickets and were even given a little postcard with the bus route and timetable on it. After a scenic 45-minute bus ride, we got off outside Politeama theater and walked to our apartment, a penthouse on the ninth floor. The jaw-dropping balcony, which wrapped around almost our entire floor, was larger than our whole apartment back in Brooklyn. We enjoyed many breakfasts and evenings up there.
The highlight of our short time in Palermo was easily a four-hour food tour with Streaty. We met our guide, Salvo, outside the impressive Massimo Theater, which is the third largest opera house in Europe and the setting of that climactic scene in The Godfather Part III. (For those of you who haven’t blocked that movie out from memory, it’s where Sofia Coppola got shot and Al Pacino did his silent scream.)
Salvo was a goofy and passionate art historian who handed each of us a “foodie passport” before we started. Every time we tried one of the dishes in our passport, he gave us a stamp! It was a delicious way to learn about the history, customs, and influences of Sicily.
Our first stop was Capo Market, a daily street market full of locals doing their grocery shopping, as well as tour groups like ours. We found a table and tried three Sicilian specialties: panelle (flat chickpea fritters), cazzilli (potato croquettes with mint), and arancina (fried risotto balls). The chickpeas and mint are obvious signs of Arab influence.
Before we left Capo Market, we passed one of the oldest vendors, a hand-pressed orange juice cart. The owner of the cart went through dozens of oranges to make a glass of fresh orange juice for each of us.
For our next stop, Salvo taught us how to order food in Sicilian dialect. We ordered sfincionello, which is Sicilian-style pizza — rectangular, thicker, and cheese-less, topped with fresh tomato, oregano, and chili. We brought sfincionello, olives, cheese, spicy sun-dried tomatoes, and bread to a local bar so we could enjoy our food with some wine. This delightful tradition is known as schiticchio. The bartender poured us some sweet Sicilian wine on tap. When we were done eating, Salvo told us to leave the rest of the food right on the bar; it’s tradition to leave food for locals to enjoy — this is so similar to the “Scrounge Table” at Reed College (except we’re feeding hungry Sicilian locals instead of Portland hipsters too cheap to buy a meal plan).
Wine on tap
Anthony’s favorite part of our food tour was when we tried Pani ca’ Meusa (veal spleen and lung sandwich) from a cart. The rich meat is boiled in saltwater, cooked in lard, and stuffed into a bun. The Jewish people in this neighborhood couldn’t eat the spleen of animals due to their religion, so Catholics decided not to let good protein go to waste. These sandwiches were delicious, and we were two of the four people from our group of ten who dared to eat it — the ones who refused to eat it were from North Carolina and Georgia, naturally.
Our final tasting was what everyone was waiting for: cannoli! We passed a man selling Godfather-themed products, and Salvo explained Sicily’s tempestuous relationship with the franchise. Some Sicilians, such as the man we saw, understandably use it as a way to make money. For others, however, it hits too close to home. While we felt completely safe during our time in Palermo, the Mafia still exists — it’s just hidden. Corruption has moved to the businesses and politicians, which doesn’t sound too different from America. Just think The Godfather Part II (“legitimate” crime) instead of The Godfather Part I (mobsters shooting each other).
As we sat by the stunning Palermo Cathedral, Salvo went to fetch our cannoli and returned with a mouth-watering tray of them. I never particularly enjoyed cannoli back in the U.S., and it’s because they’re often pre-filled, sitting in a case for hours. True Sicilian cannoli should always be freshly filled with whipped ricotta (not that sugary stuff you often find in the U.S.) right when you order, and is often topped with pistachio, candied orange, or chocolate chips.
The Palermo Cathedral was the perfect venue to end our tour. Salvo concluded with a heartwarming statement about the importance of coexistence, since adapting to the natural shifts in populations is a crucial Sicilian tradition. Palermo Cathedral is Catholic, but it proudly incorporates Islamic art and architecture to honor the large Arab population at the time. Apparently, 12th-century Norman soldiers were more progressive than half of America.
Other buildings also reflect the diversity of Sicily, such as San Cataldo and its red Arab-Norman-style bulge domes, as well as Palazzo dei Normanni’s extravagant Byzantine interior.
Sicily is a place that everyone should visit. You can’t just visit the Italian clichés of Venice and Florence. If you enjoyed Rome, head further south because you deserve to experience Sicily, too. Most Italian-Americans hail from Sicily, so it’s even more crucial that Americans visit this island to understand such a large part of our immigrant history. Come for the past, but stay for something that Sicily can really teach us about the present — how to grapple with diversity, with the refugee crisis, and with overcoming the hate and fear that seems so prevalent in the rest of the world.
Tips for future travelers:
The Prestia e Comande bus is really convenient. It arrives outside the airport every 30 min and brings you to the center of Palermo in about 45 minutes. Buy round-trip bus tickets so you don’t have to worry about buying tickets on your way back. The little postcard they give you with the bus schedule is surprisingly accurate.
Obviously, take the Streaty food tour, but for other meals, try L’Anciova for a nice Italian dinner, Cannoli & Co. for the best cannoli I’ve ever had from a shop that’s been handcrafting them since 1024, and PPP-Burger for an interesting Sicilian take on the humble burger.
Check out Quattro Canti, a Baroque square at the intersection of two major streets (Via Maqueda and Corso Vittorio Emanuele). The four nearly-identical facades contain fountains with statues of the four seasons, the for Spanish kings of Sicily, and the patronesses of Palermo. Quattro Canti was one of the first major examples of city planning in Europe.
Have breakfast the Sicilian way, with a cappuccino or granita and a pastry, such as a brioche or ciambella (doughnut). Preferably on a balcony.
Returning to Milan felt like waking up from a lackluster dream and returning to reality. Our time in Paris and England had only made me miss Italy, so I was relieved to be back. For those of you who haven’t been following our journey, Milan was the very first stop on our Euro Trip, and I had surprised myself by immediately falling in love with it. This second chance to explore the city only solidified my ability to see myself living here.
We were able to catch the Malpensa train into the city center like pros this time. Anthony effortlessly led us to Hotel Star without even glancing at Google Maps. And even the receptionist at our hotel remembered us from last time. Who knew how quickly one could become regulars in a foreign country?!
After taking our time to settle into our room, we caught the train to the Expo, about half an hour away from our hotel. Expo Milano 2015 is basically the World’s Fair, taking place for six months in a different city each year, to showcase exhibits from countries around the world. This year’s theme is Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life, which seemed fitting for us. Throughout our entire trip, we hadn’t been able to escape the country’s excitement over the Expo, as there were advertisements for it in every Italian city we visited. It seemed to be perfect planning to end our trip with such an important event.
We arrived in the early afternoon, which was probably not the best idea. We had completely forgotten that Italians take afternoon siestas! Many of the Expo workers, clad in colorful Expo t-shirts, were just arriving, and some pavilions weren’t open yet.
We started from one end of the Expo and tried to make our way through every pavilion. This turned out to be an impossible feat, as there were way too many pavilions to count. We did make a few observations as we traveled the world through pavilions:
Most Western countries were more focused on sustainability. Belgium was especially proud of its PermaFungi technology.
The poorer countries were clustered together, presumably because they could not afford their own pavilions, and centered around a common theme such as chocolate, rice, or fruit. These pavilions were more dedicated to selling goods than to anything else.
The Muslim countries always outclassed everyone else. Countries like Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia had incredibly lavish pavilions.
Surprisingly, our favorite pavilion belonged to Estonia. Apparently, they invented the swing set and Viks bike, which Anthony had fun riding. The pavilion also showcased a classical concert, restaurant, and mirrored forest. These smaller European countries were definitely trying to lure future tourists.
By the time dusk came around, more and more Italians arrived at the Expo, and everything finally felt more alive. We watched costumed Italian men dance with flags and batons. They were much better than cheerleaders!
At the end of the night, we gathered around the Tree of Life for an epic light/water/fireworks show. The Tree of Life is a huge lit-up tree in front of the Italian Pavilion. It was during the light show that I started crying. Not again! My emotions were a mix of overwhelming happiness for being in Italy again, and bittersweet envy that all these people around me could live in this extraordinary country while I had to leave tomorrow. My heart ached, just as it did when we were leaving Positano for Paris. Leaving Italy the second time is no easier than the first.The next day, we visited Milan’s extravagant Duomo, which took six centuries to complete. The interior is huge — the fifth largest in the world. Even Anthony was impressed by the Gothic architecture. We took the stairs to the ornate rooftop, which was unlike any other roof we’ve ever seen. It was so ostentatious, with flying buttresses, spires, and bronze Baroque sculptures.My favorite part of visiting the Duomo was sharing the roof with three Tibetan monks. They were such an odd sight, wearing bright orange and taking photos of each other. (Monks can own smart phones??)After the Duomo, we returned to the stunning Vittoria Emanuel Galleria, where I once had the best gelato of my life. We went to the same gelateria and tried a different flavor (fior di latte) to confirm that it was still the best. Was it? Just like the city itself, the gelato was as fantastic as I had remembered.We roamed around Brera, an adorable neighborhood full of art galleries and colorful apartments that reminded me of Rome, and watched as chic women in stilettos biked through the cobblestone roads. Milanese women will have my absolute respect for the rest of my not-as-stylish life.
After our last Italian meal, we headed to the airport. My heart was heavy as our trip was coming to an end — but it’s not over yet… ¡Hola, Madrid!Tips for future travelers:
Fly into Europe on a round-trip ticket. Not only are round-trip flights usually cheaper, it’s nice to start and end your trip in the same place. Beginning and ending our trip in Milan helped everything feel complete, like we could tie up the loose ends of our journey.
Stay at the Expo until the very end. The Tree of Life show was the best part of the entire Expo and was one of the most touching spectacles I’ve ever witnessed. It easily topped 4th of July fireworks and Bastille Day in Paris.
Positano was such a dream that my heart still aches as I write this. I had extremely high expectations for Positano, and somehow, the little seaside town on the Amalfi Coast still exceeded them. The Amalfi Coast was the final stop on the Italian leg of our trip before heading to Paris, so there was also that extra pressure on Positano to be a worthy arrivederci to Italy.
It was a trek to get there. As I wrote in my last post, we had to first catch a Trenitalia train to Naples, a Circumvesuviana train to Sorrento, and finally — since we missed the last ferry of the day — a SITA bus to Positano. These infamous bus rides are destinations in themselves, with hair-raising views of the Mediterranean from a winding path along seaside cliffs. Though our bus could barely fit on the narrow roads and had to take turns with oncoming traffic, these bus drivers clearly knew what they’re doing. They were probably as impressive as the 19th century Italian engineers who built these same roads.
The journey was complicated, but our efforts were rewarded. We knew immediately when our bus reached Positano; the town spills down the most dramatic stretch of the Amalfi Coast. The skyline looks almost exactly like it did a century ago, as it’s nearly impossible to get a building permit in Positano. The roofs are filled with sand, providing low-tech insulation to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
According to Greek legend, Poseidon created Positano for Pasitea, a nymph he lusted after. Positano was once a prosperous port village but fell into hardship after a huge tsunami and subsequent pirate raids. In the 20th century, Positano became a haven for artists and writers. In 1953, John Steinbeck wrote an essay in Harper’s Bazaar, turning Positano into a trendy travel destination.
Our hotel, Residence La Tavolozza, was the best hotel experience of our lives — and I’ve stayed at some pretty lavish hotels before. It’s not hard to please tourists here, as Positano is obviously stunning, but La Tavolozza takes advantage of the location and does it for a surprisingly low cost. Run by an adorable matriarchal family, the six-room hotel sits on a cliff and has a breathtaking view below. The service is exactly how it should be — unobtrusive, but always available. In fact, when we returned from the beach one day, we noticed that someone had folded all our clothes and organized our chargers. That’s definitely not something I expected, especially at this price!
Our room, with high ceilings and ceramic tiled floors, was sparsely decorated, and rightly so — you don’t want to compete with the view. The best part was opening up the French doors to our huge balcony, which included two tables, two dining chairs, and two reclining beach chairs. I must have taken photos every single time I was out on our balcony, still amazed.
Eventually, we forced ourselves outside and explored the area. Lemons and colorful ceramics were everywhere. Only one street in the whole town allows motorized vehicles, so staircases are the only way to get around. If only America despised cars as much!
We went to the main beach, Spiaggia Grande, twice on our trip. We didn’t feel like paying €10 for the use of lounge chairs and umbrellas, so we claimed a spot in the free triangular section near the center. The water was clear and warm, and the smooth black rocks were actually preferable to sand because sand gets everywhere — into bags, into eyes, onto damp bodies. It was so lovely outside that we took our traditional Italian siesta on the beach.
Just off Spiaggia Grande is a small shooting gallery, wedged between a staircase and a juice bar. Anthony has unsurprisingly good aim and won some kooky stuffed animals for me. The owner seemed to like us, and just after two visits, we already felt like regulars.
We were reluctant to eat at any restaurants because we would rather eat on our balcony — and this is coming from someone whose main hobby is trying new restaurants. For most of our meals, we picked up snacks from a family-owned grocery store or pastries from a neighborhood bakery. This worked out well, since restaurants in Positano cater to tourists and aren’t as cheap as those in Florence or Rome.
The view from our balcony was just as stunning at night, as the windows of homes on the opposite cliff turned a golden hue during dusk, then became brightly lit squares after the sun set. We met a couple from Seattle staying in the adjacent room and shared a bottle of nocciola (hazelnut) liqueur that we had bought back in Rome. They, too, were still stunned by the view.
After a day of exploring, we returned to our hotel that afternoon and found a long candlestick on our desk. That night, we picked up some desserts to enjoy on our balcony and slept outside on the lounge chairs until our candlestick slowly burned out. Any dream that I may have had that night would pale in comparison to my reality.
Waking up in Positano had to be one of the highlights of our entire Euro Trip. Each night, we slept with the glass doors closed and white curtains drawn, which provided just enough light and allowed us to still wake up to the view. It’s no wonder that Positano attracted so many artists and writers; the landscape could inspire anyone.
One day, we walked down to the harbor and caught a ferry to the nearby town of Amalfi, another major town on the Amalfi Coast. Although it seems close on a map, our boat ride was much longer than I expected, taking us past tiny hillside towns. A man sold drinks on the boat, so we bought a can of limonata (a must on the Amalfi Coast!) and enjoyed the breeze. The ferry took us by some interesting sites, such as a huge cliff with a gaping hole right above a hotel, with homes sitting on top of it.
We eventually reached Amalfi, which has more shops than Positano but is not quite as picturesque. After Rome fell, the town of Amalfi was one of the first to trade goods, such as coffee, carpets, and paper, to the East. Its heydey was the 10th and 11th centuries, when it was a powerful maritime republic. Amalfi even minted its own coins and established “rules of the sea” that are still used today. Its one main street runs up from the waterfront through a deep valley, with houses on either side. The uphill walk goes over a creek, since the town originally straddled a stream.
We bought lemon souvenirs and ate gelato, but our most unique snack was from C.I.C.A. Pescheria, where we ate fritti (fried seafood) stuffed into a handheld paper cone. We squeezed some lemon on top and used the long picks to fish out the fritti. It was delightful and perfect for a Mediterranean merenda.
Amalfi was a quirky little town, with silly advertisements and extravagant fountains. While we had gotten used to seeing artistic fountains during our time in Italy, none could compare to the unconventional ones found in Amalfi.
We caught a crowded ferry back to Positano. During the ride, a Japanese man started singing a traditional Neapolitan song called Santa Lucia. At first, most people on the boat rolled their eyes, half wondering if the man was crazy. But eventually, we realized that he’s actually a tour guide and was incredibly good — like, professional opera singer good — and some people joined in the singing and eagerly applauded when he was done. It’s always reassuring when true talent is universally recognized and appreciated.
Our last day in Positano was a melancholy one. We picked up pastries from Collina Bakery, bought SITA bus tickets from a nearby tabacchi shop, and enjoyed our cornetti (stuffed Italian croissants) on our balcony for the very last time. During our bus ride back to Sorrento, we noticed some chaos outside causing traffic. It turned out to be a funeral procession, as a group of somber people in black followed a priest. I don’t know if it was the funeral or the fact that we were leaving Italy, but I started crying. Our time in Positano had been overwhelming; my heart had been swelling up with joy and affection for a while. I felt both pity for the deceased’s loved ones and envy that they could live here, while I must leave.
I’ve always been fond of the places I visit, but this was the first time that I was completely devastated by an attachment to Italy. I’m probably the only American who wasn’t looking forward to an upcoming trip to Paris. I never wanted to leave. Even our hotel owner knowingly said as we checked out that morning, “There’s something special about Positano, isn’t there?” I will definitely be back some day — but until then, bonjour, Paris!
Tips for future travelers:
When catching the SITA bus to the Amalfi Coast, sit on the right side of the bus for the best views. Make sure your luggage is well-secured, as the bus makes sudden turns.
If you’re visiting during high season, book your hotel room early, especially if you’re considering a place like La Tavolozza, which has only six rooms. There is simply no room for hideous chain hotels, so don’t expect to find a Hilton or Marriott here; Positano has too much pride for those.
If you’re reluctant to leave your balcony like we were, grocery stores are great for dinners (e.g., Vini e Panini), and bakeries (e.g., La Zagara and Collina Bakery) are perfect for breakfast pastries. Don’t forget some limonata! Bring everything back to your balcony and never leave again.
You can’t stay on the Amalfi Coast without taking a ferry for a day trip to another town. When you arrive at your destination, check the times for returning ferries. Plan around that and make sure you don’t miss the last one.
Don’t visit Positano unless you are prepared for a heartbreaking good-bye.
I’ve been told that Italy intensifies as you move farther south, and that Naples — the country’s third largest city — is Italy in the extreme. After spending just a few hours in southern Italy, I can pretty much concur. The rest of Italy feels candy-coated compared to the south. If Rome‘s grittiness is too much to handle, Naples probably isn’t the city for you. But for the adventurous traveler, it offers plenty, from archaeological sites to mindblowing pizza. My obsessive planning skills were useless here, but I slowly learned to embrace the chaotic beauty of southern Italy.Even our train ride to Naples seemed more disorderly than all our other train rides. When we boarded our final Trenitalia in Rome, we initially couldn’t find our car because the seating assignments were different. Instead of rows throughout the whole car, there were a few enclosed compartments. We were still standing, perplexed, when the train started moving. Eventually, we figured out how to decipher the seating and joined four other people in a compartment.
After a few train stops, only a man and a teenager remained in the compartment with us. The man was on his phone the whole time and even fulfilled our Italian stereotype by exclaiming “Mama mia!” at one point in his conversation. The teenager, realizing immediately that we were tourists, excitedly pointed outside to things we should look at, such as a group of kite surfers and the glittering sea in the distance. He couldn’t speak much English, but we attempted to show our appreciation for this free, private tour by “ooh”-ing and “aah”-ing. Little moments like these — the mutual understanding, enthusiasm, and consideration shared despite language and cultural barriers — were some of my favorite experiences in Italy. Even the other man, despite not interacting with anyone during the ride, said “Ciao” to the teenager and “Bye” to us before leaving the train.No matter how little time you have in Naples, eating pizza is a must. Neapolitan pizza is indisputably the best in the world. While New York has done a fair job imitating the Neapolitan style, the prices in Naples can’t be beaten (but I encourage you to try, New York!). Unlike pasta, pizza in Italy is really hit-or-miss. We’ve had an awful one in Venice and decent ones in Rome. Fortunately, there is no gamble in Naples. We squeezed through crowded streets to a pizzeria called Trianon. I was surprised by how fancy the restaurant looked, with bright yellow walls, mirrors to open up the space, and marble tables. Nevertheless, the prices were just what we had hoped.
We each ordered a pizza, which was ambitious, since one pizza could have stuffed both of us. As expected, they were some of the best I’ve ever had. Authentic Neapolitan pizza consists of wheat flour with a high protein content, San Marzano tomatoes, and only a smattering of fresh mozzarella. The dough must be kneaded by hand or with a low-speed mixer, then formed by hand — not with a rolling pin or other tool — into a thin crust. It is baked for about a minute in a stone oven with an oak-wood fire. When served, the pizza should be soft, floppy, and extremely aromatic. My mouth is watering as I type this. We couldn’t leave behind such good leftovers, so we asked for a takeaway box and headed back to the station.We then embarked on the most miserable train ride in recent memory. To go south from Naples, we caught a cheap commuter train called Circumvesuviana. The company gets its name from Mount Vesuvius, the infamous volcano around which it runs — hence, circum-vesuviana. The train station was a mess. There were dozens of tourists trying to get to Pompeii, just like us, but no one seemed to know which train to catch, since signs were confusing and the trains were not labeled. Some local teenagers were waiting at the platform as well, doing typical dumb teenager stuff — shouting, standing at the very edge of the tracks, and sidling up close to certain passengers. You could sense all the American tourists nervously clutching their belongings. We somehow figured out which train was correct and began the sweltering 40-minute ride. The train was packed and had no air conditioning, just some tiny windows at the top. We were crammed into a corner, still holding onto our pizza.
About halfway into the ride, however, a little girl started singing a Spanish song that her dad was playing with a guitar. She didn’t have a great voice, but because of the somewhat dire situation, everyone appreciated it. Music lightened up the mood, while the desperation of the performing child pulled our heartstrings and, what a surprise, made me fall in love with southern Italy a little more.
We got off with the other tourists at Pompeii. The “left baggage” department wouldn’t let us leave our pizza with them, so we ended up carrying it around Pompeii, which is a bit ridiculous considering ancient ruins should deserve more protection than a random air conditioned room by the entrance. Nevertheless, we carried that pizza through Pompeii’s basilica, public baths, and one of the first fast food restaurants!
Pompeii was once a thriving commercial port, but in year 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the important Roman city under 30 feet of hot volcanic ash. All inhabitants were killed, and the site was lost for thousands of years. Historians love Pompeii because everything has been preserved due to the lack of air and moisture from the ash. These artifacts provide a perfect insight into the daily lives of middle-class Italians.
Mount Vesuvius looms in the distance and is still regarded as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. When it erupted, Pompeiians had no idea that they were living under a volcano, as Vesuvius hadn’t erupted for thousands of years. It spewed a cloud of ash, dust, and rocks for 18 hours straight, as winds blew the cloud southward, settling on Pompeii and collapsing roofs and floors.
The level of engineering and urban planning that we noticed in Pompeii was astounding. Every day, Pompeiians flooded the streets with gushing water to clean them. Stepping stones let pedestrians cross without getting their sandals wet. Chariots were designed to perfectly straddle the stones. A single stepping stone in a road means that it was a one-way street, while a pair indicates an ordinary two-way. Three stepping stones signify a major thoroughfare. The sidewalks were studded with reflective bits of marble that helped people get around after dark.
After Pompeii, we had to rush to Sorrento to catch a ferry, so we hopped onto Circumvesuviana again for a much more pleasant ride, thanks to strategically-placed windows that allowed air to gush in. Once we arrived in Sorrento, we had to climb down a long, zigzagging staircase to get to the port. Poor Anthony had to carry our suitcase down. When we finally got to the port, we were told that the last ferry to Positano was at 3:00, not 6:00 like Rick Steves said! I couldn’t believe that something went wrong in my impeccable itinerary! This had to be the most frustrating experience on our trip, as I hopelessly went to each ferry booth to confirm that there were no more ferries for the rest of the day. Instead of taking a ferry, we’d have to take a winding journey on a SITA bus to our hotel. I refused to make Anthony carry our suitcase up that absurd staircase, so we plopped ourselves onto a nearby city bus that takes people back to the train station. Of course, the bus driver took his time, waiting for more people to board. I was incredibly moody, and I don’t know what I would have done if eternally-calm Anthony hadn’t been with me. The driver finally shut the doors and dropped us off at the train station. We must have looked frantic because a kind Italian man asked if we needed help. A garbled “Dove stazione SITA?” was enough for him to point us to a SITA bus that was just about to leave. He confirmed that we were going to the Amalfi Coast and rushed us to the bus stop. The SITA bus driver must heard the helpful man’s shouts because he waited for us and shut the doors as soon as we scrambled up with our luggage. We made it! Southern Italy, I love you again. Ciao, Positano!
Tips for future travelers:
Go with the flow. I struggled with this, as I couldn’t purchase our Circumvesuviana tickets or ferry rides in advance. But just know that everything is going to work out. You’ll eventually find the right train platform, you’ll eventually get to your destination. No one is in a rush in southern Italy, and, besides getting to Pompeii before it closes, there’s no reason you should be in a rush, either.
One thing you’ll notice as an American traveler is that the worst thing that can happen to you (e.g., getting pickpocketed) is probably your own fault. Southern Italy gets a bad reputation, thanks to its overwhelming poverty and America’s obsession with the Mafia. However, the Italians we came across in Southern Italy were some of the most charming people on our trip, and it’s a shame that such superficial stereotypes discourage many tourists from exploring places like Naples. Southern Italy is real Italy, after all.
Rome was intimidating. After getting comfortable in quaint Florence and Disneyland Venice, we were finally in a real city, dense and sprawling. The Eternal City has a special place in my heart — partly because my grandparents used to live in Rome, back when my grandfather was still working for the UN, and partly because one cannot grow up watching Fellini films without being somewhat seduced by it.
We stayed at the adorable Lilium Hotel, near embassies and other grand buildings. Everything about Lilium Hotel was charming, from the French doors that opened up to our tiny balcony, to the birdcage and piano in the lobby, to the dishware for our breakfasts each morning.
After we settled in, we walked to the nearby Monti neighborhood, which immediately became my favorite neighborhood in Rome. The hilly neighborhood is right in the center of Rome, yet retains a small village quality thanks to its narrow side streets, quirky buildings, and bohemian character. Monti and Trastevere seem to be the “cool” areas in Rome right now. You can tell just by passing any piazza in Monti, where young Romans with cheap beer and cigarettes congregate around the fountain. We ate in Monti twice, once at La Taverna del Monti (try the fritti and carbonara!) and once at La Carbonara. Just like in Florence, food in Rome is a very good deal, unlike cities along the coast.
Enormous ancient ruins are everywhere, nonchalantly scattered across the city. We trekked over to the Colosseum twice — once during the daytime and once at night — because it was just that stunning. The colossal, concrete-and-stone amphitheater is still the largest in the world and is an architectural and engineering marvel. The exits are embedded within the tiers of seats and are called vomitoria because it is where the crowd can “spew forth” and exit the Colosseum rapidly. This design has been copied over and over in modern stadiums. The Colosseum can hold 80,000 spectators and has been used for everything, from gladiator contests to executions to re-enactments of classical myths. Part of it has collapsed due to earthquakes and stone-robbers, but even in its damaged state (which offers a perfect cross-section of the structure), it is still stunning. When you’re inside the Colosseum, it’s hard not to imagine a packed stadium watching wild animals tearing naked prisoners into pieces.
Rome was probably the hottest city on our trip, with temperatures over a hundred when we were touring the Roman Forum. If you’re here in the summer, it’s a good idea to bring along a water bottle to refill at Rome’s many public drinking fountains, and plan to take afternoon siestas. There are also gorgeous fountains all over the city, and you’ll often see Italians just sitting with their feet in them. While America seems to respect works of art by closing them off and making them inaccessible, Italy in many ways does the exact opposite by incorporating masterpieces into daily lives.
You can’t really visit Rome without stopping by the Vatican, so we made our way through the disgustingly touristy surrounding neighborhood — constantly being asked by strangers on the sidewalk if we had bought our tickets yet — and finally entered Vatican City. (We later realized that they are actually associated with the Vatican City and were trying to help us. We could’ve used that level of help in Florence!) We breezed through opulent halls and followed the signs to the Sistine Chapel. Groups of tourists were herded like cattle, in and out of the chapel, but if you stay in the middle, no one will notice how long you’ve been there. Anthony and I ending up staying in the Sistine Chapel for about 30 minutes. It was breathtaking — and this is coming from an atheist! Michelangelo spent four years of his life working on this massive fresco, depicting the history of the world. When he was first commissioned by the pope, he was primarily a sculptor, not a painter, and was reluctant to take on the project. However, the Pope was persistent. Contrary to popular belief, Michelangelo was standing on scaffolding as he painted (instead of lying on his back) and must have felt considerable discomfort as he had to paint with his head tilted upwards. If you aren’t impressed with Michelangelo yet, you certainly will be after standing under his Sistine ceiling.
After the Sistine Chapel, we climbed 645 steps (yes, Anthony counted!) up to the top of St. Mark’s Basilica to see the view of Rome. Rome isn’t the most attractive city from above, but the view gives you a good sense of how vast it is.
Surprisingly, my favorite meal in Rome was right outside Vatican City. Hostaria dei Bastioni was recommended by Rick Steves, so we decided to give it a try despite its touristy location. A charming old man welcomed us inside his restaurant. My seafood pasta was unbelievable, so when he asked us if we wanted to try some tiramisu, which his wife makes fresh, we eagerly said yes. And, boy, I’m so glad we did. I didn’t think anyone could top the tiramisu at New York’s Via Quadranno. Unlike every other tiramisu I’ve had in the U.S., I could actually taste the sponginess of coffee-soaked ladyfingers, as well as the mascarpone and a hint of alcohol.
Whereas nighttime makes Venice exponentially more palatable, nighttime heightens Rome’s sensuality. Rome wins the contest for best uplighting. As the sun sets, lanterns illuminate the streets with a warm, orange glow, evoking the oil candles used in ancient times, while the intricate details of monuments become accentuated in the most impeccable way. In other words, Rome becomes sultry.
Rome is a perfect mix of fashionable Milan and gritty Naples, which was the next stop on our Euro Trip. Ciao, Napoli!
Tips for future travelers:
Ride the Metro. As a New Yorker, I’m always pretty curious about other cities’ subway systems. Rome only has two lines (it’s hard to build underground when you’re constantly finding ancient ruins during construction!), but we found them very convenient. An unlimited day pass cost €7. The Metropolitana di Roma stations and trains are covered in stylish graffiti, and each train has little monitor screens that play random commercials.
Everything is Rome is a tourist attraction, so get advanced tickets to save time. Since I had reserved online tickets for the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and St. Mark’s Basilica, we were able to skip three insanely long lines.