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.

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Pompeii the Inferno

We spent a day in Pompeii on our way back to Rome from Sorrento. It was the hottest day yet on the trip and we felt every bit of it walking around the ruins. We never did find out the temperature, but when we arrived back in Rome, it felt like someone had turned on the air conditioner outside and it was 39 degrees Celsius (102 Fahrenheit).

Pompeii was a Roman town that was destroyed completely during the height of the Roman Empire by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius on the 24th of August, 79 A.D. Even though the town was completely destroyed, it was covered by ash and consequently very well preserved. It was only rediscovered in 1748 and has since been excavated to give modern historians a good look at what life was like back then. Read More

Limoncello on the Island of Capri

The beautiful island of Capri actually has an interesting history to match its beauty. While the Greeks are the first known society to inhabit the island, just off the coast of Sorrento and within view of the ominous Mt. Vesuvius, there have been discoveries made of humans there dating back to the Neolithic period. Roman emperors used the island as a vacation spot and after the collapse of the Roman Empire, it was a haven for pirates.

Currently, it has developed into a hot tourist destination with many upscale shops lining the streets. If you are into this sort of thing, you might find this exciting. However, there are other things to do there as well. Sara and I took the Mt. Solaro chairlift to the highest point on the island, where the views of the sea and the rest of the island were unbeatable.

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The Holy See – Vatican City

No matter your feelings for the Catholic Church, a visit to the Vatican will provoke a sense of awe even in the most staunch of non-believers. The feeling that you get when you walk into this historic city is one of reverence with a bit of trepidation.

We were not there when the Pope was present, which was probably fortunate, as the crowds most likely would have been unbearable. As it was it was fairly crowded, but we were able to tour St. Peter's Basilica. This is another destination that it helps to find a guide that can give you a sense of the history of the place, including the fact that St. Peter is supposedly buried here. Also, you want to be sure to dress appropriately: no bare legs and no bare shoulders. You will get turned away so be as conservative as you can.

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Hung Over in Tuscany

Tuscany has some beautiful countryside and we visited the region on our way from Cinque Terre to Rome. We went to the historic town of San Gimignano, which is itself also very impressive. However, if you read my last post, you will recall that the wine in Cinque Terre is particularly good. Needless to say we were very hung over. Add to this that it was over 100 degrees and we were on an un-air conditioned bus. We then hiked around the town with our backpacks because we had nowhere to check them. I'm sure if you go there you will enjoy it, but unfortunately I am not going to be of any help to you.

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Trail by the Sea – Cinque Terre

If you are touring Italy for the art or the history, you can skip Cinque Terre. The area is lacking really any significance in both areas. However, if you want incredible scenery, interesting architecture and food and wine that will blow your mind, then you really, really need to visit "The Five Lands". Cinque Terre is made up of five small towns that are built on the cliffs of the Italian Riviera. They are inaccessible by car (only train or boat), and are each different and unique. There is a hiking trail that connects all five towns with a varying degree of difficulty depending on which leg or the journey you are on. The entire hike can be done in a day with some time spent in each town. Read More

Leaning Tower of Pisa

I am going to be honest here and say that I wasn't very excited to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa. We had just left Venice and Florence and were heading to Cinque Terre, and Pisa was a stop along the way, so we figured we should check it out. Having seen it, I can say that, yes it is very impressive, but unless you are passing through, I would not go out of my way to go there. We were very fortunate that it was a beautiful day and we could walk around the area and explore a bit, but if you are pressed for time, stay on the train and spend it in Cinque Terre. Must See: The Tower, of course, duh. Read More

Cityscape of Florence

We moved from Venice to Florence and discovered a world of cultural history. The city itself is over 2000 years old, founded by none other than Julius Caesar. I am a history buff, and while I prefer military history, there is no denying the attraction of the former residents and goings-on that makes up the history of Florence.

You can get a glimpse of the importance of this city by the list of some of its former residents: Michelangelo, da Vinci, Galileo, Machiavelli, Donatello, Dante Alighieri and of course, the Medici family. The architecture everywhere is so incredible that you eventually just come to accept the grandness of everything as normal.

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Arriving in Venice

The more you travel you will find that most major cities have something about them that makes them unique. Not just a certain attraction, building or monument, but an overall feeling, an atmosphere that encompasses the architecture, the people and the culture. In some cities the differences from other places are subtle. Not so with Venice. It is as unique a city as they come.

Sara and I started our whirlwind tour of Italy in 2003 with Venice. If you are a frequent traveler and are used to a typical tourist destination, throw all of your 'training' out the window when you arrive in Venice. First, there are no cars, no buses, no trains, subways, or taxis. The city is not very large, so you can walk almost anywhere, but if you do need to travel from one end to the other, you take a vaporetto (water taxi) down the Grand Canal. Boats are the only motorized mass transit in the city. Read More