Italy was amazing. We agreed that we could easily spend months in the country (if not longer…) and love every minute of it. The food and wine were plentiful and delicious, the weather was very pleasant, and the buildings were lovely and colorful. We visited Cinque Terre and the Liguria region, Pisa, Rome, Ostia, Florence, and Palermo. (We flew out of Catania, but didn’t see any of the city, so we can’t claim that we really saw it.) Each location was uniquely beautiful.
We started our trip with a long but pleasant train ride from Nice to a small town called La Spezia, just south of Cinque Terre (“five villages”). There we stayed at a fantastic new Airbnb where the host was extremely nice and accommodating; La Spezia was the perfect location from which to visit Cinque Terre, a string of five centuries-old seaside villages on the Italian Riviera, consisting of Riomaggore, Corniglia, Manarola, Vernazza, and Monterosso.
For two glorious days, we took short rides on local trains to get to each. We hiked the steep terraces, walked down to the harbors, admired colorful houses and vineyards, ate yummy food, and saw many lovely buildings both old and new. Cinque Terre is one of the most beautiful places we’ve been to date.
If you get to Italy, don’t forget to make time for this area!
After our four-night stay in La Spezia, we took the train to Pisa, where we hopped off and saw the Leaning Tower. I have to say, though, that the church beside the tower is the real show-stopper. Why don’t people talk about it more? I know the tower has broad appeal because of its famous tilt, but the church deserves its very own spotlight. It. Is. Amazing. We did a quick walk around here, ate some pizza (in Pisa!), then hopped back on the train bound for Florence.
Our first night in Florence was very fun. We went to a bar/restaurant in a plaza inside a renovated prison. Old cells had been converted into bathrooms; they even left the original sliding steel doors in place! A bit creepy, yet very cool. We had some cheap drinks and a delicious little buffet dinner, then sat and played cards in a courtyard full of college-age kids. Very lively. Good times.
The next day, we started out at the Church of Santa Croce, where we saw the tombs and cenotaphs of famous poets, artists, philosophers, inventors, and statesmen including Galileo, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Rafael, among others. This is also the location in which the first Franciscan crucifix was created (i.e., the now-universal symbol of Christian spirituality, Christ suffering on the cross, whereas earlier depictions of Christ generally showed him as a victorious, kingly figure).
Later that day, we joined a walking tour of Florence and saw the Duomo, an architectural masterpiece designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, atop the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore; Ghiberti’s famous Doors to Heaven, given notoriety once again in recent years due to Dan Brown’s bestselling novel Inferno; the Piazza Della Signoria, where many famous sculptures reside alongside the Grand City Hall of Florence; and many other noteworthy sites, including the oldest tower of the city (and trust us, Florence has a lot of towers!); it is now a hotel. This tower-cum-hotel houses a museum in its basement — sadly open to guests only — and its foundations date back to at least the second century BC.
On our third day in Florence, we went to Pitti Palace, which belonged to the Medici family during their long reign over Firenze. It’s also home to one of Napoleon’s bathrooms. Inside, Connie also visited a costume museum that included several beautiful dresses from famous designers across multiple decades of the twentieth century. (Her sister, Catherine, would have loved it!!)
Next up, we went to Rome, which was old, spectacular, and crowded. On our first full day there, we took a walking tour of the Vatican Museum, including the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. The museum was ridiculously crowded — shoulder-to-shoulder, packed-in-like-sardines crowded. It sucked. Big time. The number of people was unbelievable, and the sound quality of our tour left much to be desired. Scott and I were both miserable there.
We were rushed past the beautiful marble figures and had only about 10 minutes to marvel at Michelangelo’s artwork in the Sistine Chapel before we had to move on. We were, however, blown away by the basilica, which thankfully seemed a little less crowded, probably due to its enormous proportions. The tour ended in the middle of the Vatican square, which was being readied for the Pope’s weekly appearance the next day.
Reeling from our awful Vatican tour experience, we decided to see the other major sights on our own, with the help of free downloadable Rick Steves audio guides. We hit the Coliseum, Roman Forum, Imperial Forum, Capitoline Hill, Palatine Hill, and several other temples and ruins. The city really is full of them, like no prior place we’d been; everywhere you turn, there’s something ancient and amazing that has been unearthed and made public, mixed in haphazardly among modern homes and businesses.
The next day, a Monday, we tried to visit Ostia Antica, the ancient port town of Rome; to get there, we walked 20 minutes, took a bus for about 30 minutes, a metro for another 20 minutes, and then walked another 20-30 minutes. Unfortunately, the park that houses ancient Ostia is closed on Mondays… so we were pretty bummed.
We tried to make the most of the day and went to the beach at the modern town of Ostia, about 20 minutes away from the ruins. However, contemporary Ostia proved to have a pretty ugly, dirty beach, and the surrounding town isn’t much better. (We also read that it’s pretty much mob-controlled and rather dangerous; don’t walk alone there at night.) All in all, we don’t recommend visiting Ostia.
Speaking of the mob, the next day we took an 11-hour train ride to Palermo, Sicily (or SEE-CHEE’-lee-ah, as Scott’s daughter Aidan has reported her Italian professor pronounces it). The city was extremely dirty, with trash everywhere. The filth is very unfortunate because the Palermitani people are lovely, their food delicious, and the culture vibrant.
The reason for the filth and squalor, according to one of our tour guides, goes back once again to the mafia. Organized crime has had a profound effect on the people, politics, infrastructure, and culture of Sicily. As a result, Palermo is literally decaying — roads and bridges are pitted and cracked, amazing historic buildings lie in disrepair, housing in many areas is ugly, dirty, and poorly maintained, alley cats are everywhere, people don’t pick up after their pets (so feces litters the sidewalks), and the city just smells bad.
With all of this said, though, we still really liked it. In fact, we had the best tour of our trip thus far in Palermo; since the city is known for its cuisine, we joined a 4-hour walking food tour with a very affable and informative guide. And we went to all four of the cities’ famous outdoor markets, each with many local vendors selling fresh seafood, fruits, vegetables, pastries, cookies, breads, nuts, olives, olive oil, wine, spices, etc. A cook’s paradise!
Later, we visited the Palazzo dei Normanni and the accompanying chapel, the interior of which was probably the most beautiful we’ve seen, with the possible exception of St. Peter’s Basilica. (You can check out the video of the interior below.) The entire chapel interior is covered in fine glass tile and gold leaf designs depicting various biblical characters and scenes. Breathtaking to say the least! Nearby, the Palermo Cathedral rooftop offered wonderful views of the city and the surrounding mountains and port.
So many picture-worthy sights!
Catania to Artemida
Okay, this section is actually more about our arrival in Greece than about Sicily. On our final night in Italy, we took a bus to Catania, and we rented a room close to the airport. The next morning, we flew to Athens, where we spent a wonderful night in Artemida, a smallish town on Greece’s east coast, about 40 minutes from downtown Athens.
At the Athens airport, we met one of our favorite Airbnb hosts to date, George, who actually picked us up upon our arrival! He drove us to his family’s home, one floor of which was our accommodation. Along the way, he also took us to a nearby hilltop to see the city.
Later that evening, George offered to give us a lift once again. He took us along the beach to a very low-key, yet spectacular and locally famous seaside restaurant, which has been frequented by celebrities and politicians from around the world. We splurged a little and enjoyed a dinner of fresh-caught fish (which we picked ourselves) while sitting literally 10 feet from the Mediterranean shoreline. At the restaurant, we happened to meet a nice Greek man who used to work as a doctor at Emory in Atlanta (!), who gave us great tips on what to see and do in Greece.
After dinner, George even picked us up and gave us a ride back afterward! Thanks, George. You are a terrific host — one might even say a “super host”!
Next Up: Greece
The next day, we met Connie’s friend Amanda Sperling back at the airport and then started our Greek adventure, which will be covered in a future blog post. We are still in Greece currently, so there’s much more to experience before we are done in this beautiful, warm, friendly country.
—Connie & Scott