A lot of the travel articles I write are about places I’ve visited as part of a huge trip, with time to spare to visit everything on the list. They are written impersonally, with a matter of fact ‘must-see’ itinerary and some historical references thrown in for some context. In a slight departure from the usual style, I’m going to write a first-hand account of what we actually do on holiday – in this instance, ten days in Italy with the editor of this magazine (who also happens to be my fiancée.)
Normal procedure before booking a holiday is to have a brief discussion about where to go, and why my opinion is the only one that matters. In this instance, the trip was part of a birthday present for Sophie, so I couldn’t completely disregard her preferences. A long awaited and much voiced desire to visit Italy was on the cards, and although the voice had painted pictures of coastline in the summertime, we get precious few holidays in this life, and I just can’t bring myself to spend money to go sit on a beach, living where we do. Fortunately, the voice had also mentioned pizza, pasta, gelatos, and Italian culture. Besides, our free time for a trip such as this fell in the winter, so beaches were no good to us.
I had booked the first three nights in Rome, which became four nights after Vueling decided to change our flight dates no less than three times. A nice little place called the Pope’s Attic on Airbnb, with views of St. Peter’s Basilica from the terrace; illuminating the rooftops at nights, and accompanying morning coffee with pleasant chimes of the bells of the Vatican. As it happens, we had both been to Rome before as children (strangely, in the same year! Perhaps a mini version of us exists in each other’s holiday snaps…), but memories can be an elusive notion, so we thought it best to revisit some of the classic landmarks.
The first morning we made a beeline for the Colosseum, walked around it marvelling at how big it was, then went inside with a few hundred other tourists to have a closer inspection of the old bits of stone. After looking at some of the artefacts recovered from the area, and watching a short video clip about the battle formations adopted by boats of that era (for some reason), we pushed on past the plethora of men selling selfie sticks (although Sophie was doing less pushing and more haggling) and made it the few hundred yards to The Roman Forum.
The Roman Forum (or Il Foro Romano) is teeming with history. The ancient government buildings, temples, and what was once apparently a little brothel all squeezed into one market space has left an impressive smattering of chariot-marked cobbled streets, lined with residual columns in every direction.
The final stop of the day was to follow the other hundred thousand tourists to the Trevi Fountain, which, impressive as it is, hosts a number of equally impressive gelaterias in the surrounding area, each with their own take on how to serve cannoli. Sweet, creamy ricotta deep-fried pastries were consumed and stomachs ached. Before you head for these tasty morsels, chuck a coin over your shoulder into the fountain – the saying goes that if you toss a coin into the Trevi Fountain, you’ll return to The Eternal City (Rome). Toss two coins and you’ll return and fall in love. Three coins will get you a return, love, and marriage. Sophie was less than impressed when I threw in two, but I assured her I was simply doubling up on our luck. Luck or no luck, your coins are all going towards a worthy cause; €1.5 million is collected from the beautiful Baroque fountain each year, with the money given to the charity Caritas, supporting the poor and homeless.
What kind of fool wants to queue for two hours?
The next day we planned to visit the Vatican, which from our apartment was about a two-minute saunter. As we were setting off, I remembered someone I had met in Madrid, who happened to live in Rome, who also happened to be a priest. I managed to rope him into showing us around the Basilica (which is free to enter), but he told us to visit the museums on our own, as tickets were seventeen euros each, and he had been many times before. Just outside the city walls, we were fortunate enough to run into a man with insider knowledge.
“You’re not going to queue for tickets, are you? That’ll take at least two hours! Trust me.” He said.
“I can get you on a tour for sixty euros, and you’ll be permitted to jump the queue, which, if haven’t already mentioned, is extremely long.”
I turned to Sophie and voiced what would be on any reasonable person’s mind at this point.
“I trust this man with all my heart. What kind of fool wants to queue for two hours in the cold?”
“Possibly more.” He chimed in.
“Possibly more!” I continued, “And this kind man is offering us the opportunity to avoid all that and show us around the artefacts, giving us details about them so we don’t strain our eyes reading all those plaques. Furthermore, it’s only an additional forty-three euros each!’
Safe in the knowledge I’d made an excellent point, I reached for my wallet. At this point, for reasons unbeknownst to me, Sophie rolled her eyes and suggested we walk around the corner, ‘just in case’ this kind-hearted Samaritan was mistaken about the queue. By the time we had rounded the corner the crowds must have dissipated in some one-in-a-million event, because we walked straight into the museum, with no queue in sight.
Inside we assumed the standard museum procedure. Staying in the first room for half an hour looking at old pottery and musing over the historical significance of each item, gradually speeding up with each passing exhibition, before breaking into a light jog towards the exit sign. It seemed the other tourists had adopted a similar strategy for this museum, which culminated in the pièce de résistance at the end – The Sistine Chapel. We hung around here looking at the walls and the ceiling for a bit, abiding entirely by the rules of no photography, without any surreptitious attempts to point a phone at the ceiling whatsoever. No sir. Not us.
We then met my Portuguese friend for a tour of St. Peter’s Basilica. It should be noted at this stage that his English isn’t very good, and our Portuguese is non-existent. We settled on Spanish (although his Spanish is mixed with Italian and Portuguese, which made things interesting). He took us round the statues and mosaics explaining the historical context and religious significance of each piece with impressive detail, after which he asked us if we had any questions. I don’t think “Where can we get a pizza?” was what he had in mind, but we went to a restaurant nevertheless, then called it a day.
Our final day in Rome was spent walking the streets, popping in and out of shops selling cannoli and trying to visit tourist attractions that didn’t cost much. Having walked up and down the Spanish Steps, we rejoiced in the fact that this particular landmark was free, and reasoned that we deserved a cup of tea by way of celebration. Luck was on our side once more, as there was a quaint little tea house at the bottom of the steps named Babington’s Tea Room. The interior surpassed any stereotype for quintessential English high tea and the walls were adorned with literary heroes from the past who had frequented the place. Once sat down and comfortable, we were hit with the news that a cup of tea would be fourteen euros each, which we of course ordered immediately with a smile to mask our embarrassment, as is the British way.
The main take away from Rome was the impressive amalgamation of old and new. One moment you could be walking down a street lined with glass-front shops selling high end brands, and the next when nipping down a side street for a coffee you find yourself on a cobbled lane with two-thousand-year-old structures. More time could have been spent walking these streets, but we had a train to catch – on to Florence we went.
Florence is a whirlwind city of picturesque streets upon streets. A five-minute walk outside of the centre, and the shops transform, each exhibiting a specialist nature, where the goods inside are only suitable for the one person in the world who was looking for that particular item. Shops dedicated to antique chairs, or clocks, or specific fabrics. None of which were useful to us, but had us peering in the windows regardless
An eighteen-euro ticket gains entry to a variety of sights around the quite frankly stunning Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, including the Cathedral, Crypt, Baptistery, Bell Tower, Opera del Duomo and an aerial view from the top of the Duomo, after climbing four or five hundred steps. Finally, periodic visits to the Med Steps over the last few months had paid off!
Once again, there are a number of museums to visit here, and of course we couldn’t leave without seeing Michelangelo’s David (although after our fifth museum and tenth pizza, we did consider it) but simply walking the streets was one of the main attractions for us. Stopping on the famous medieval stone arch bridge, Ponte Vecchio, admiring the view of the river and the hills beyond, was as aesthetic as any of the works of Renaissance art in the Uffizi Gallery.
We of course ordered immediately with a smile to mask our embarrassment.
On our final day, on another walk (the purpose of these walks had quickly morphed from leisure to necessity due to the volume of gelatos being consumed), we decided to visit the Boboli Gardens. Ten euros in the summer, six in the winter. Having paid and after walking for at least ninety seconds, Sophie proclaimed that “The Alameda Gardens are better, and they’re free.” So we left.
The Pitti Palace (Palazzo Pitti) next door is worth a visit though, if you like that sort of thing, which after binge watching 3 seasons of The Crown, Sophie most definitely did.
The final two days of our trip were spent in Pisa, more for a change of scenery that anything else. Apart from taking silly photos at the tower [not fit for publication in this esteemed magazine], most of the trip here consisted of me complaining that the it wasn’t as nice as Rome or Florence, and Sophie countering that it was a nice change from the hordes of tourist-filled streets. However, we both agreed Pisa is best visited as a day-trip from Florence.
Italy is a country with one of the richest histories in the world, landmark art, and ancient ruins, and one that has made a powerful and lasting mark on the Western world (and its cuisine). It’s amazing how much time slips you by wandering the cobbled streets, eating ice cream, and drinking coffee. By the end of our trip, it wasn’t just our suitcases that had gained a few extra kilograms.