After 24 hours of travel, we arrived in Venice. We took a few days to settle into our new home, vomited profusely, then jumped on a train to begin 3 weeks exploring Italy.
After the train to Rome and a few days exploring this ancient city, we were to drive south as far as Sorrento then back up to Venice. At our advanced age, we prefer to spend a longer time in fewer places. Gone are the days for us of one or two nights then moving on. Although it allows you to pack in more, we now enjoy a more relaxed pace.
First stop, Rome. After losing a day (and some very expensive first class train tickets) to sickness, we hit the city hard. Energy levels are always high at the start of an adventure. We walked and bused and walked non-stop. The forum, Palantine hill, the Flavian Amphitheatre (aka the Colosseum), the Spanish steps, Trevi fountain, the Pantheon. All the things good tourists do in a city with 3000 years of history.
We also did plenty of aimless wandering. The kids were absolute troopers. On one day, Oli’s Garmin watch showed 18kms and 24k steps. That’s a lot for little legs; it’s a lot for big legs too. We walked as much as possible between sights. We figure that the backstreets and neighbourhoods are as much a part of the fun as the sights themselves.
The Colosseum was a highlight for everyone. We took the underground and third ring tour, giving us access to parts not usually available. This was Oli’s most anticipated activity and it lived up to his expectations. The tour guide was excellent and brought the place to life for the kids.
The Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s ceiling are super-hyped tourist magnets. Unfortunately I have to admit that they are this way for a reason. Standing under that broad expanse of fresco is an incredible experience, even for a committed heathen like me. The Vatican as a whole was a day well spent. Oli and Lucy especially loved the endless corridors of art (or not). They spent several days afterward reinterpreting the paintings, substituting humans for prawn-people. Imagine ‘The Creation of Adam’ with god-the-prawn stretching out a ‘hand’ to Adam-the-prawn. Disturbing, yes. But at least it indicated the children were absorbing it all at some level. We’ll take what we can get.
First impressions of Sorrento were not great, to be honest. The road in is busy – chaotically so – and winds through the newer and unattractive parts of this resort town. A walk down to the water cured this, through alleyways lined with shops and restaurants. Sorrento is clearly a tourist town, but manages to avoid kitsch and overdone-ness. And it has a cafe with a pet pig and rabbit available for the patting.
Sorrento is a seaside resort for Europeans. This is one thing no Australian will credit Sorrento with. People go down to the water on a hot, sunny day and sit on black, pebbly sand. Or put a towel on top of the wooden piers erected in summer for sun baking. These poor, deluded fools see this as a treat. In Melbourne, people who live near ‘real’ beaches (like down the Mornington or Bellarine peninsulas) look down on bay beaches like Hampton. Even Hampton beach destroys any beach near Sorrento. Australia spoils us for beaches anywhere else. Almost.
The place we were staying for the next five nights was utterly charming. Santa Lucia Residence is on a hill above town. It had a great little playground and pool right outside our door. There were orange trees and lemon trees everywhere. Through the miracle of grafting, some trees had both oranges and lemons! Gino, one of the owners, was friendly and helpful and gave us some great tips. He also insisted on addressing Lucy as ‘Trouble’, as in “Hey Trouble, come and pick some oranges with me”.
As well as wandering Sorrento and surrounds, we did a couple of day trips.
Pompeii is an easy train ride from Sorrento. If you have this on your bucket list, then we recommend taking the Rick Steve’s audio guide as a companion. Walking the ruins without information to give it context would be a huge waste of time. The audio guide allows you to place the things you see into a living Roman world.
A short ferry the next day saw us in Capri. Capri was swamped with people, and sadly its infrastructure cannot cope. We got a late start to the day due to our relaxed laziness and by the time we arrived, buses were impossible to catch. But faced with the situation we changed our plans and took off on the bus none of the hordes seemed to want. First we found some great belvedere (‘good seeing’) points overlooking the striking Capri cliffs. The beautiful Augustine garden is a cliffside oasis. All in all, a fun day snatched from the jaws of an underwhelming start.
The indisputable highlight of our Sorrento stay came from a hint from Gino. Bagni della Regina Giovanna – the Bath of Queen Joan – was a hidden gem. It is a tiny cove containing the perfect swimming hole where we whiled away a delightful afternoon. 5 stars, would lounge about doing nothing there again.
Our villa, an old renovated farmhouse in a small hamlet-turned-resort, was set amongst the rolling hills of Tuscany. Down the path was a pool and around the corner was an amazing restaurant. The occasional deer frolicked in the fields below, a Labrador puppy visited us for scratches and a huge snake fell of our roof onto the ground. Country living at its best.
With such an ideal setting, we put aside a couple of days to chill out. On the days we did manage to drag ourselves out, we made it to a few of the many medieval cities dotted around. All had their different appeals. Siena, Florence and San Gimignano are obvious in their attractions. Siena and Florence were the big dogs in town, fighting for control of the surrounding lands over the centuries. The wealth and power centralised in these cities left its mark, especially with Florence and the Medici family.
Monteriggioni and Colle di Val D’elsa were of a much smaller scale and less known, but equally charming and deserving of our time. These fortress outposts of the regional powers have spectacular natural settings, and histories as rich as their larger neighbours.
Svet and I popped in to Pisa when we were in the area in 2002. We decided to spend a night there. We have the view that day-tripper-heavy places (like Venice, San Gimignano and Pisa) are best enjoyed once they empty out a little. This time around, we booked in two nights there.
The first afternoon we climbed the tower. The Bell Tower of Pisa is leaning. It is leaning so, so much. They should give it a catchy name that lets people know that. Walking up it was freaky. As you ascend the circular staircase, it feels like you go from climbing steep stairs to going downhill, then back again. You need to book tickets need ahead. If you like climbin’ stuff, like I do, then put this on your list.
Having two nights meant we had time to spend a day in Lucca. Lucca was our second option for a base, if Venice proved unachievable. If things had gone differently, and we had 3 months in Lucca, we would not have been disappointed. It has a great, ‘lived in’ feel with locals clearly in charge. The maze of cute pedestrian-dominated streets is reminiscent of Venice, minus all the water.
The trip reinforced in my mind what a great choice Venice was as a base. Getting to and from the train station via ferry is quite lovely. Car hire from the majors is equally accessible. The airport is a bit more of an effort, but is well connected and well serviced by various airlines.
There is also no chance of accidentally wandering into the “new town” in Venice. For us this can be a problem in many cities, as we often go in a direction with no destination in mind. Suddenly we find ourselves in a place where the buildings are barely a couple of centuries old, sometimes even only several decades old. Imagine! This can’t happen in Venice. The old and new towns are separated by a huge stretch of lagoon. There is 1000 year old charm in every direction.
Having a place to come back was great. Not just another set of accomodation, we have set up our Venetian apartment to be home. After almost three weeks of travel, it was nice to have somewhere to return to. A place to revive and replenish before setting off again.