Essential Italy for Independent Travelers

“I would rather be first in a small village in Gaul than second in command in Rome.” -Julius Caesar

Sara and I try to take at least one major trip every year, with as many little ones as possible in between. In 2003, our trip was to Italy, certainly at or near the top of both of our 'must see' lists. Sara did tons of research and discovered new ways to travel as cheaply as possible, while still seeing as much as we could.

We had 11 days in Italy and we certainly did see a lot in that short time. After a brief layover in Amsterdam (not long enough to even leave the airport), we arrived in Venice. We spent one night there and stayed in a dorm style room (with a shared bathroom down the hall) at the Palazzo Zenobio. There was a bell tower nearby which was quite active, but we did manage to get some sleep.

We left Venice by train and headed to Florence where we also spent one night. One of the ways that Sara saved us money on this trip was by being a registered travel agent. She was able to get a travel agent discount on many things, including a Eurorail pass. If you are not familiar with Eurorail, you need to be if you are planning a trip to anywhere in Europe. You can travel virtually anywhere by train and the pass itself is a huge discount from normal train ticket prices. As a travel agent, Sara was able to get us a 75% discount off of the normal prices. Yes, you read that correctly, we only paid 25% of the normal purchase price for tickets. A future post will be more detailed on saving money during travel and will outline how to become a travel agent, along with dozens of other 'tips' we have picked up over the years.

After our time in Florence, we traveled to Cinque Terre, with a day stop in Pisa. The train ride into Cinque Terre is beautiful. The Italian countryside is interesting enough and then you will enter a long tunnel. Throughout the dark tunnel there will be brief glimpses of the outside world featuring a quick view of the sea. Suddenly you reach the end of the tunnel and blast out into sunshine and a grand view of the Mediterranean. Incredible in its beauty, we had to view it up close. Once we arrived in Monterosso, we checked our backpacks, ate lunch and made our way down first topless beach!! Ah, Europe. Back home in San Diego we have a nude beach called Black's Beach. I have never been there, but I hear that if you like fat old men it is really happening.

When we left Cinque Terre and we were headed for San Gimignano on our way to Rome an interesting thing happened. We were just sitting in our seat on the train talking when a younger Asian woman sat down across from us. She said something in Chinese to Sara. When Sara replied in Chinese, she burst out crying and then proceeded to tell Sara a long story (all in Chinese, of course, so I just sat there wondering what was going on). When she finished, Sara translated for me. Apparently this girl was from China and had come to Italy to work for some relatives. She had been here for three months and this was her first vacation day, so she had wanted to spend it in Cinque Terre. She lived in La Spezia, which was a very short train ride from Cinque Terre, so she had hopped on a train and had expected to be on the beach by now. Unfortunately, she not only did not read Italian or English, but she did not speak either of them as well. She had boarded the train going the wrong way and did not know what to do. She had walked up and down the aisles of the train and Sara was the only one on the train that looked like she might speak Chinese. She was one lucky girl. We all got off at the next stop and we put her on the correct train. I think she was so shaken up by the experience, though, that she just went home and saved the beach for another day.

Our next stop was Rome, where we spent three nights. Sara had arranged a travel agent discount at a nice hotel, and I thought initially that I was going to enjoy the plush surroundings. However, up to this point we had stayed at a convent, a hostel-type establishment, and a very inexpensive locally owned hotel that was bare-bones in its amenities. In Rome, not only did we have a pool, but we also had cable TV. The drawback was that we were pretty far away from anything that we wanted to see and had to take a bus to get anywhere. This led us to play it lazy a bit and instead of seeing things, we played at the hotel. We quickly came to our senses and went to see the sights and truth be told, it was a nice break, but as they say, “When in Rome, get your butt out of the hotel and go see the ruins, dumbass.” Or something like that.

The Vatican was certainly a place where one could spend a great deal of time. We just spent one day there, but I could see how it would be possible for an historian to spend an entire career investigating the intricate and storied past of the Catholic Church. I would have mixed feelings about being there when the Pope spoke. It would be inspiring to hear him, however, the crowds would be so large that you would not be able to do or see anything else.

After Rome, we made our way down the coast to Sorrento, where we splurged and stayed in a hotel, La Minervetta built on the side of a cliff, literally. You enter the hotel on the street level and proceed downstairs to the lobby and restaurant, then continue down until you reach your room level. All rooms are facing the sea, with a view of Mt. Vesuvius, and the view down is straight down to the beach several hundred feet below.

In addition to our trip out to the island of Capri, we took a bus tour down the Amalfi Coast. I am generally not adventurous enough to drive in Europe, but if you are the type that likes to rent a car instead of using public transportation, my advice would be to NOT do this on this particular highway. The highway itself has such severe cutbacks and narrow lanes as to make one nervous by themselves. Then add the severe drop off into the ocean hundreds of feet below and you might actually hesitate to make the drive. But, the clincher is the average bus driver taking both tourists and citizens up and down the coast. These guys are actually on work furlough from the Sorrento Insane Asylum...seriously. They barrel down the road and take the corners fast. If you are coming the other way, you had better stop and move out of the way. They do seem to extend some type of courtesy to their demented brethren driving the buses coming from the other direction, as they will actually slow down and occasionally give up right of way. What I am trying to say is that this drive is not to be missed, both for the view and for the shot of adrenaline. Definitely try to sit in the front row on the right side of the bus for the best view.

We returned to Rome for one last night, where we stayed in a convent less that a quarter of a mile from the Spanish Steps. Even though the accommodations were a little more spartan, we enjoyed this stay much more because we could walk everywhere we wanted to go.

What a trip this turned out to be. We had a great adventure throughout the entire trip, enjoyed at least two gelati each per day, met several interesting people, foiled a pickpocket on the Rome subway (story to come in another post), followed the Path of Illumination, got mugged by pigeons in Venice and had an unforgettable vacation. If you are going to take one trip to Europe in your life, this is the one.

  • Sounds just like the trip I’m planning to do later this year but I’ve got a bit of time to stay a couple of nights in most places. I like the idea of staying in a monastery or convent as they seem to be all over Italy and reasonably priced. I know a little about them as I found a great website which provides a booking service for over 350 monasteries. I don’t expect a travel agent discount but it does show you what commissions are built into normal hotel bookings. This website charges a fee so they are not receiving any commission. However the places seem very well located, I’m pretty sure they will be safe and ideally they have single rooms. I’d check it out.

    • Sara

      Thank you for the comment, John. I checked out the website. It’s really cool. I believe the monasteries receive single travelers often. I am sure you won’t have any problem putting together a great trip. Let us know how your it goes. 🙂

  • Hiya. I stumbled across your site by mistake and was happy that I stopped by. My mother and some others have recently started a huge lot of online research to locate apartments in Italy and where to stay and other misc. Anyways, thanks for the scoop – excited I found it by accident and will keep in mind. Using research I quickly began adding info about Tuscany apartments in my blog.

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