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  • Writer's picturethetravelingartemis

Italy - Stranger Danger! An Engagement! And an Aborted Takeoff!

Trip Occurred: September 2012 Blog Written: August 2020


Before we begin on our trip to Italy, a few things - This was a very special trip where some really exciting things happened but also some not so great things happened. Italy is a beautiful country full of friendly people (minus the Venetians) but there are a lot of aspects of this country that are not my favorite. One of them, oddly being, their very relaxed attitude. This same attitude is what makes the Italians so warm but ultimately it drives me mad. There was just a very casual attitude towards everything. When we were being taken around Rome, between the old streets and tourists, there wasn't a lot of room for cars but our driver continued to drive somewhat recklessly (my sister-in-law closed her eyes at some point) and when our van hit side mirrors with another van, our driver simply pushed it back out and continued on like nothing had happened. I mean, he's correct. Everything's fine...but is it?

Anyway, this was also the trip that taught me the importance of pre-purchasing tickets. I understand some people like spontaneity and I'm not saying don't do that BUT, unless you are in the off season (and this was September so it was a shoulder season), you should pre-purchase tickets to the larger attractions. Pre-purchase tickets AND go early! There was a certain amount of this trip that was just us waiting in a line.

Also, this was a large family trip that included my parents, my brother and his then girlfriend (now wife who I will refer to as my sister-in-law throughout this blog) and myself. Given this, this was the trip I began making PowerPoint presentations. Normally, when I plan for a trip, I just use Excel; however, for this trip I thought it was important for everyone to see what we would be doing so they could give input. I always ask before I begin planning if there's anything someone really wants to see BUT PowerPoint gives a really good idea for what the trip should be and helps create a nice double check.

OK! Let's get to the actual trip now and the pretty, pretty pictures.

We got transportation from Sacramento to San Francisco. Because there were five of us, and the limo company was worried our baggage wouldn't fit in a standard limo, our transportation car became a stretched limo SUV. Not gonna lie, it was a pretty cool limo and a fun way to start the trip.

We arrived at the airport, got through security, stopped at the British Airways Business Class Lounge, boarded the plan, and arrived to our Business Class PODS! I love the pods! For long flights, the ability to put your feet up and get some sleep is fantastic but I also just love that you get personal space. Seems every year there's less and less space on planes.

Once we got to Rome, via London Heathrow, we discovered that my bag had not made the flight. This meant we had to wait 2 hours until the next flight from Heathrow arrived. Also, the bathrooms in this part of the Fiumicino airport were disgusting! When I walked in, I could easily tell it was gross but I thought, "No! I'll be brave (even though others had turned away)"! I walked into the stall and not only was there no toilet paper, the garbage can in the stall was overflowing with bugs flying around. I decided I'd rather hold it (before I realized I would have to wait for my bag to arrive) and washed my hands only to discover that the rotating towel rack was completely soaked. Needless to say, I Purell-ed when I got out of the bathroom. Also, interestingly, when we flew out of the airport, the bathrooms were totally clean. Not sure why these on arrival were so bad. Either way, not a nice start and also a heads up for those of you who haven't been. Hopefully, they'll be fine for you but I know next time I'll be sure to make a bathroom stop at Heathrow.

Our driver/guide from Rome Cabs waited for us throughout the delay and then still took us around the city to do some sightseeing. He was great and the city was beautiful.

After sightseeing we arrived at our hotel, the Sofitel Rome Villa Borghese. I really liked this hotel. It was very comfortable and the staff were nice and helpful. My sister-in-law and I both blew out our straighteners and they were able to direct us to a salon that sold them. I would stay here again BUT in all honestly, I'll probably try to stay somewhere a little closer to The Spanish Steps when I return to Rome one day with my husband. That's the only complaint I had about this hotel, location.

After we checked in, we walked down the street and found a little restaurant for dinner. WARNING - There are a lot of people in Rome that will try to sell you something. The annoying thing about outdoor dining is that they will still come up to you. This night we experienced someone leave a rose at our table and then come back and ask for money. It's a very annoying thing.

Day 1

Today was our first full day in Italy.

We woke up early, had breakfast at the hotel, and then walked over to the Villa Borghese, which houses the beautiful Galleria Borghese. You're not allowed to take pictures and they make you check your bag, which lead to a funny look when my sister-in-law handed over her furry purse.

This is a not a very large museum, so it's easy to get through, but is full of beautiful sculptures and paintings. Highly recommend going.

Next, we headed over to the Colosseum. It was PACKED!!!! I can't remember how long we waited but people were coming around offering a tour to get in right away and we jumped on the opportunity. The tour was actually for the Colosseum and the Roman Forum/Palatine Hill.

The tour guide for the Colosseum was horrible. Just insanely boring. We should have just ditched her after using her as a way to get in. My actual recommendation is to pre-purchase your tickets and avoid all of this. Oh! And go first thing! We went to the Galleria Borghese because of how close it was to our hotel but we should have flipped the day and gone to the Colosseum first.

We then ate lunch at an obvious tourist trap of a place (read: not very good food but conveniently located) and then headed back for our tour of the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill.

Before I go into this tour, I have to say, we waited out in front of the Colosseum for our guide and I think most of us were starting to notice the size of the group, which was rather large, and getting a little curious about how this was going to work. The guides showed up and broke us up into groups of 20-30 people. I think there ended up being about 3 different groups. One man became enraged by this. He said that whoever sold him the ticket swore the group sizes would not be above 10. The guides there tried to calm him down and say that's not true but he was not having it. As he was walking away, and I think towards the tour company's main office, he loudly yelled, "This is bullshit"! My family still quotes that to this day. I can't remember if he threw something, as there is a hand gesture that goes with our mockery of this man. I get his frustration but man, it was hilarious!

The Roman Forum and Palatine Hill are very interesting but really annoying to walk when it's hot (and it was). This was unfortunate as the guide for this tour was fantastic but at some point, you'd just give up on standing in the sun listening to him and go sit in the shade until he moved on to the next stop.

Oh! You may be wondering why the pictures above include a random woman lying on the ground. In all major cities in Italy (Rome, Florence) there are beggars, which we do have here in the States, but these were particularly aggressive and/or dramatic beggars. In Florence, we would watch one woman walk up to obvious tourists, stick her stomach out, and beg for money. If that didn't work, she'd stand straight up and walk just fine to another group of tourists and start the whole thing over again.

That night we had a very nice dinner during sunset on the roof our hotel. What a beautiful end to our first day in Italy!

Day 2

Today was an all-day tour of Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast.

Our first stop of the day was Pompeii. We had a driver with us for this trip but when we got to Pompeii and independent guide met us and took us around the sight. To say he was incredible is an understatement. He obviously LOVED Pompeii. He goes there in his time off and walks around looking for old coins. THAT'S how much he loves it! And that enthusiasm just makes the whole tour that much better.

I found Pompeii beautiful, and fascinating, and sad. I recommend this trip for anyone visiting Italy as it was probably my favorite thing we did (outside of Taormina itself).

After our Pompeii tour finished, we headed to Positano and had lunch. The views were beautiful and the food was fantastic, particularly the bruschetta. They gave us all a shot of limoncello, which I had to psyche myself into doing. It was no joke. Not sure I'm a limoncello person but I do recommend trying it. Especially if you're visiting the Amalfi Coast as it's where it originated.

Our final stop of the tour was Sorrento where we just walked around a bit. Sorrento wasn't as nice as I thought it would be (though I'm not sure what I was expecting) but those ocean views are spectacular. I think if I ever stayed in the region, I would stay in Positano but I'm not 100% sure without doing more research.

Day 3

This day we woke up and headed over to the Vatican Museum. This was another day I learned that you should pre-purchase tickets and go first thing in the morning. There were WAY too many people here. It was suffocating! And smelly! Despite that, this place is VERY impressive and I highly recommend a visit. The works of art in here are something else. And the Sistine Chapel is larger than I thought it would be. Again, impressive!

After the Vatican Museum, we headed over to St. Peter's Basilica. We were going to go inside but after the chaos and crowd of the Vatican Museum none of us had the patience to wait in the long line. I actually don't think the wait would have been too bad and I regret we didn't just stick it out BUT I remember how tired and frustrated I was at the time. I also thought I would be able come back on the last day of our trip but that ended backfiring - More on that later.

Next, we wandered over and took pictures of the Castel Sant'Angelo, we did not go inside, and then walked over to the Pantheon. This is a very impressive building. I mean structurally. I couldn't build this now; I can't imagine how they managed it then. The Romans were remarkable.

We stopped for some ice cream and then continued on to the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain. Rome may not be my favorite city in the world (it's crowded and a little dirty) but man do they have some pretty impressive architecture and sculptures. It's like the entire city is an art museum.

Day 4

We left Rome for Florence taking a train. This was interesting experience as there are people who hang out at the train station looking for tourists and offering to help them with their bags. I had wandered off with my sister-in-law in an attempt to avoid these people only to turn around and see my parents talking to them. One of the guys ended up helping with some of our bags and my dad gave him a 25 Euro tip and the dude had the nerve to ask for more. Sigh.

This day we mainly walked around and took in the different sights of Florence. We saw Ponte Vecchio, which is a bridge full of shops, mainly jewelry it seemed. We also saw the Piazza di Signoria, which is beautiful and full of statues. Finally, we visited The Uffizi Galleries. I highly recommend this gallery but also PRE-PURCHASED TICKETS!!!! We waited two and half hours to get in. They do 30-minute bursts here, which means you're mainly standing there and then have a big burst of people who get in every 30 minutes. It was horrible.

That night we had dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe. I think we actually did this twice while we were in Florence. I think the first time I liked the American food but the second time I was like this is gross and we shouldn't go here anymore.

Also, I'm going to skip over the hotel here. We had a hard time finding a place to stay in Florence so we ended up at a just OK hotel. However, given everyone there was professional and the rooms were exactly as they were advertised, I don't want to say anything negative against them. It was a perfectly fine hotel, but next time I visit I will probably stay somewhere else.

Day 5

Inspired by the long line we waited in at the Uffizi, we started the day at the Galleria dell'Accademia to see the statue of David. Interestingly, this line still did bursts in 30-minute increments but we got through it in an hour. Not bad!

I have to say, the statue of David is AMAZING. I wish I had pictures (they don't let you take any) EXCEPT I don't think it would do it justice. It is huge! Also, so freaking lifelike. The real give away (you know, except obviously being made of stone) is the hair! But the rest of the statue is so real looking you swear it is about to move. There are other art exhibits at the Galleria dell'Accademia but David is the star of the show.

After David we stopped by the Duomo, formally called the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. We somehow got in the line to climb up to the top of the dome. My parents didn't go and my brother and sister-in-law ended up turning around but I was determined to make it to the top despite my fear of heights.

When you get to the top, right before you step outside, it actually does get a little scary as there are some steep steps. I had to literally pull myself up them. I also somehow received some black and blue marks during this climb (though I can't remember why).

I do recommend taking the time to do this. The views are INCREDIBLE!!! However, a warning if you are afraid of heights. I pushed through but my sister-in-law turned back because of the heights and claustrophobia. So just be aware cause it's 463 steps.

Our last stop of the day was Santa Croce, my favorite place in Florence. This a gorgeous church that reminded me of Westminster Abbey in London. Buried in this church are heavyweights like Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Galileo.

A funny story. My dad and I were walking around Santa Croce and an older man came up to us and asked us a question in Italian. For some reason, I said, in FRENCH, that I didn't understand him. He then, totally logically asked me if I speak French. Given that I speak very little French I said, "petite peu". The man now looked really confused and then said, "English"? I said, "Yes"! And then he asked me where something was and, after all that, I had to tell him I didn't know where that was. It was just the most awkward encounter. For some reason, answering in English felt rude. I have no idea why. But that instinct to answer in French just lead to a lot of confusion. Thought a funny story.

Oh! You may notice I included a picture of the dress code for the church. This is VERY common in Italy. You cannot have exposed shoulders or knees. Basically, if you plan on visiting a church in Italy, dress modestly. Some of the churches have coverings they can give you but some may deny you entry so take note!

Finally, I have to call out my favorite restaurant in Florence, Ristorante Buca Mario. We went here two nights in a row for dinner it was that good. They remembered us from the previous night and gave us all aprons to take home. The food was fantastic and service beyond that. When I return to Florence, this will be high on my list of places to visit.

Day 6

Today was a cross off of an item on my brother's bucket list, Museo Ferrari. While I'm not a big car person it was a pretty cool museum. They also take you in a shuttle along the Viale Enzo Ferrari in their factory and onto their Fiorano track. It was pretty cool. You can only take pictures in the museum, which is why I don't have photos of the factory or the track.

On our way back from Modena, we stopped in some small town to look around and taste some Chianti. It was a very cute town. I wish I remembered the name of it.

Finally, our driver (yes, we had a driver that day) took us to an outlook over Florence called Piazzale Michelangelo. I wouldn't say this is a must but they are great views of the entire city.