Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Missing the Mark in Italy

It's hard for me to admit this, because I like to style myself as somewhat of a pre-professional traveler, but my trip to Italy was for the most part a failure.
I even made a list of reasons not to go to Italy...
There were certainly good moments on the trip- wonderful moments! But overall, there was more stress than smiles, more unfulfilled expectations than moments of wonder, and more frustration than delight. Italy just...isn't my style- and I've always known that! I've said time and time again that Italy just wasn't on the top of my list of places to go, I knew it wasn't the type of place I would enjoy with my style of travel. I ended up being totally right. But the trip wasn't a total bust, and it's definitely worth recounting some of our adventures, so here are the highlights (and lowlights) of my trip to Italy.

When I first arrived to Milan I had about half a day to myself before Kirstyn arrived and those hours were really quite pleasant. My impression of Milan was really positive. Before I went, reading information about the city made it seem like an impersonal, bnoring, quasi-Italian, grimy business capital. I did get a distinct feel for the buisiness atmosphere of the city- lots of people of all ages zooming along on their little motorinos in beautifully tailored suits, and Milan is of course known for it's fashion and shopping which couldn't be missed. I didn't think the average Milanese was particularly stylish, but walking around the gorgeous "Rectangle of Gold" and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II was a wonderful glimpse into a certain lifestyle.
Piazza Scala
There was a wide selection of shops ranging from Zara and H&M to Prada and some place selling 100 Euro hand-carved pipes. Inside the Galleria there were little swarms of Chinese and German tourists clicking their shutters incessantly, but here and there was a business man negotiating something into his Blackberry while smoking a cigar and throwing back a tiny espresso, or an older woman with heavy makeup and perfectly coiffed hair sitting at the Gucci cafe with her tiny dog laying at her feet. There were so many moments where I felt "this is so Italian!" and I initially thought that if Milan isn't "traditionally Italian" enough for some people, the rest of trip would be amazing. Milan saw my first Italian pizza (mozzarella, potato, and sausage), and my first Italian gelato (crema and nutella) and my first smoking hot Italian young businessman in tight slacks and a suit jack on a motorino flirting with me! So overall, yes, Milan was a positive experience. Of course the duomo was also gorgeous, and especially loved the Catholic University, late 4th century Saint Ambroggio Church, and quiet neighborhood surrounding them. In Milan I got the feeling that instead of a busy center that fades into more residential areas with less character, the whole city was like the very center had gradually relaxed and melted into the edges to form a large plain of pedestrian areas and high quality stores. It's hard to describe, but I liked it! I didn't get any grimy or industrial feel- although our hostel was certainly substandard. When I came back to Milan after Venice to meet up with Roman, the one thing he wanted to do was go to the AC Milan football stadium...so we made a two hour mostly walking pilgrimage in terrible heat to see a big empty stadium...but Roman liked it, so that's what's important))

Venice is where the negative aspects of the trip really began to pile up. Maybe I just had expectations that Milan would be the base and everything would get even better from there, but it didn't really work like that. Venice was...crowded. Hot. Expensive. There were WAY too many tourists for my liking. Apparently Venice gets 50,000 visitors a day and it was really oppressive. Absolutely everything was geared towards tourists, it was nearly impossible to find anything local and authentic. The only real locals we saw were a few old ladies early on a rainy Friday morning, and the shop assistants and waiters at restaurants- many of whom weren't even Italian, but immigrants from North Africa and Southeast Asia. In Venice, there aren't really street signs, but there are signs leading tourists towards the major sights like St. Mark's Square and the Rialto Bridge/Market. There was literally a moment, when it was raining, and a big swarm of tourists, many dragging suitcases up and down the stairs and bridges, clad in ponchos, umbrellas clashing, shouting in Chinese and English, all pushed through a narrow alley following a sign towards St. Mark's Square, and I felt exactly like I was in a theme park. Like Busch Gardens' "Italy" section. I think that metaphor really carried through the rest of the trip as well. There were certainly things I loved about Venice, though! At night when it was cool and quiet, the canals were really beautiful. The architecture reminded me a lot of St. Petersburg (which was built by Italians), and I thought that was really cool. Because the whole city is SO geared towards tourists, there are lots of fun restaurants and shops, which is good, but also not really authentic Italy. There are no cars in the city, which is super neat, and there are lots of little alleyways and tiny courtyards to explore!
Adorable alleyway we found
The thing is, Italy is so imitated, and so well imitated throughout the rest of the world, that seeing it was surprisingly un-shocking. Nothing was completely new or unexpected, it was like I had seen it before. It was also a bit hard to tell what was real and what was fake. There are a lot of authentic old buildings, but also a lot of replicas. Are the gondeliers doing it for the tourist money or because its their family trade? Are the pizza-makers singing in the restaurant to draw in tourists or because they're happy? Does that fruit seller grow those in his garden or import them from Ecuador? You just can't tell...so I found myself being pretty skeptical about everything. I would go back and give Venice another shot in the off-season, but my experience there was certainly not one I'm eager to repeat soon.

Cinque Terre, La Spezia, and Porto Venere
Here is what I would call the best part of our trip. Unfortunately it was only two days, one night, but it was the closest we got to the idyllic Italian countryside paradise of the movies and I loved it! It was also our only time spent on the coast, and the only hours of relaxation I really enjoyed during this "vacation". Cinque Terre, or "Five Lands", is a series of five towns clinging to the Mediterranean coast of north western Italy. It is still touristy, but mostly Italian tourists from other parts of the country. It is also really popular for backpackers and hikers with its gorgeous cliff-side trails. We rode the little regional train up and down the coast to some spectacular views! Our hotel was actually in Porto Venere, another small town about a 30 min busride away from the regional hub of La Spezia. Porto Venere was so quaint, the perfect Italian post card! Our hotel was up high on a hill and we had a great view of the beach below. We had an AMAZING seafood dinner with wine and gelato for dessert. Perfect night))) Then the next day we went to the biggest town of Cinque Terre, Monterosso, and, despite threatening storm clouds, swam in the Mediterranean! If I could do it again, I would have spent the majority of our trip there.


Florence Duomo
Piazzale Michelangelo
I had pretty high expectations of Florence, and while I can't say it was exactly what I'd hoped for, I can definitely see how people love it. The train journey through Tuscany was much more beautiful than the city itself- rolling hills, mountains in the distance, little red roofed villas and stately palazzos. The city itself had less character than I expected, but the center was certainly worth seeing. We climbed the Campanile (bell tower) and got beautiful aerial views of Florence, we climbed up a big hill to Piazzale Michelangelo, basically the balcony of the city, and saw the urban core melt into the surrounding Tuscan countryside. Thanks to some wonderful tips and recommendations from my friend Emily who studied abroad in Florence, we found the BEST gelato (muscato and peach granita was possibly the best thing I ate in Italy) ever and got more out of the city than we would have otherwise. I liked Florence overall, but I felt like I was missing the magic. I think if we were to have someone who completely adored the city show us around and transfer some of their passion, it would have left more of an impression.
Posing in the garden of a convent with orange trees!

Well...I read a lot of articles before I went about how Rome is hard to get on the first visit, and almost impossible to love. The best you can really do is to try and handle the city through its overwhelming chaos. I actually didn't find the city to be that overwhelming, perhaps because our hotel was in a very quiet neighborhood outside the center, or because our short stay only let us see the highlights, but I can't say I loved it either. Rome was definitely the city I liked least out of everywhere we went. It was awesome to see the ancient ruins alongside well preserved medieval and renaissance architecture, and I decided I liked the latter much more. It was actually difficult to reconcile my ideas of the Roman Empire with the experiences we had in the rest of Italy. We dedicated a day to "Ancient Rome" and it was hot, dusty, and tiring. Roman knows a ton about that period, and he was loving it, so maybe having a knowledgeable tour guide would have improved my experience. We also spent a day at the Vatican, and that was really really cool. I loved it and I would definitely recommend it. I love the mystery and tradition of the seat of the Catholic Church. I've read enough about the Papacy to really get into it! (Plus at every corner I was pointing out Angels and Demons references...) The Vatican Museum is enormous and full of interesting details. One of our best nights we spent in. On our last night in Rome, we picked up pizza from a restaurant on our street that was hopping with locals all night long (it was absolutely delicious), cracked open a bottle of wine we brought all the way from Florence, enjoyed a juicy watermelon, and just relaxed, decompressed, and reflected on our trip. I can see myself returning to Italy at some point, giving it another shot, but honestly I can't see myself going back to Rome- I've had enough.
Castello Sant'Angelo


If I could do it again...
  • I would go with a bigger budget.
  • I would have read a book or two about ancient Rome or general Italian history before I went to get me in the mood, so to speak.
  • I would have hired private tour guides (bigger budget)
  • I would have spent all the time on the coast and in the countryside relaxing, with maybe day trips to Venice and Florence.
  • I would have met some Italian people.
  • I would have eaten more local specialities rather than just constantly (totally delicious) pizza and pasta
  • I would have tried more local wines
  • I wouldn't have missed my flight home and have to spend 13 hours in the tiny, terrible Bergamo airport.
  • And the biggest "would have"?...I would have spent the money on a different trip altogether. 
 The initial reason to take the trip was to see my darling best friend Kirstyn, and that was a total success, so in the end, perhaps the trip wasn't so much of a failure after all. 

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