All roads lead to Rome… That is the “road” we took for our recent vacation coinciding with the long National Day/”SG 50″ long weekend. Not that we are trying to get out of the country during our nation’s 50th birthday but rather, it’s more for me taking a break before my course starts in Sep, and I didn’t want to take it too close to the start of the term.
Ok, enough of any excuses…
Rome is our first stop, followed by Florence, Venice and finally, Milan with 2 nights at each city. If it is not for me taking a break during this period, Italy is NOT a recommended place to visit during August. Not only is August a vacation month for Italy, which means huge crowds and long queues at key attractions in major cities but it is also the hottest month of the summer season. And these Italians don’t really believe in air-conditioning! I’ll get to that later.
But… I’d really want to visit Italy so….. Oh well… Just gotta grind through the crowd and the weather…
For most cities, we had encountered large crowds, except for Milan which is nice but not particularly very interesting so I reckon many would visit other cities or the coastal areas instead of Milan, but thankfully, we didn’t have to queue very long for certain places cos we had bought the tickets online (very important!!).
But the weather’s a KILLER!! OMG! It is even hotter than Singapore, which I’d read from my Facebook newsfeed that it had been raining the whole week when we’re in Italy! I cannot stress enough and probably will repeat again on the scorching heat with little cloud cover. The mornings would still be ok, at around a high 20-ish Deg C, quite pleasant actually. By 11am, the sun would be high up, all ready to roast us and with the temperature rising to around 38 Deg C by noon/early afternoon. Evenings are much better.
Oh and not to forget that we’re perpetually parched. Don’t think I have drunk that much water back home nor have such a major craving for Coke. No, make that ice-cold Coke. You won’t believe some places (like Macs in Milan) don’t serve Coke with ice. What the… right? Anyway, I don’t drink much soda but here, no hesitation to down Coke or any cold sugar-laden beverages. Luckily, we had brought our water bottle and had refilled it with cool (drinkable) water from the numerous fountains scattered all over.
One thing I really dislike about red-eye flights is, I can never get good quality sleep, if I can get any sleep in the first place, on the flight. Furthermore, we had to transit at Dubai so that’s an additional interruption to whatever sleep we can get. So naturally, I will be all stoned out on the first day and I can only wish my hair is not scraggly looking.
Right after we had touched down around 7am or so, the driver for our transfer to the hotel had met us at the arrival area. Our free & easy package had included hotel/airport transfers and train tickets. Went straight to the hotel and thankfully, our room’s available. A quick wash-up and we’re out on the way to our first attraction in our itinerary.
Our hotel is around 5mins plus walk to the nearest metro station, “Lepanto”. Before we proceed to our first attraction (Colosseum), we had to go to the “Termini” station to collect the Roma Passes which we had bought online. Actually, we could have bought these at the ticketing machines at the train stations, which is slightly cheaper. During our trip planning, we didn’t come across any websites or forums that would have advised us the same otherwise we could have save the time and hassle to locate the damn information counter at “Termini” to collect these passes. Think the extra cost is for the small squarish folder that the pass is placed in and the city map which we find the map provided by the hotel is clearer.
Once we got our Roma Passes, we made our way to the Colosseum via the metro, stopping at the “Colosseo” station. While you can buy your tickets at the location and some would advise the counter at the Roman Forum (or Palatine Hill, can’t recall which) would be shorter but during peak seasons, always buy your tickets online except for the first Sun of every month where the admission into the Colosseum is free
Our Roma Passes would allow us to enter via a separate and supposedly shorter line. However, since our visit had hit the first Sun of Aug, we had dreadfully feared that there would a huge flood of visitors which we will end up queuing for more than an hour regardless of having the Roma Passes. Thankfully, we were inside within 10mins. Even though it’s free entry for all on that day but it seems that those without the passes (or other docs/passes that will provide fast track access, if any) would still need to go to the counters and get a ticket except they don’t need to pay anything. Hmm…
Wow… we are able to catch a part of the outer facade of the Colosseum the moment we exited from the station. Even then, this structure is impressive and magnificent. I am no longer groggy-eyed.
The original name of the Colosseum was the Flavian Amphitheatre, constructed under Emperor Vespasian of the Flavius family in 72AD and completed by Emperor Titus 10 years later. Most parts of the Colosseum’s original state had been weathered away. In the past, this was an arena for violent fights between gladiators, animals with animals and men with animals. In the past, the ground of the arena would be covered by a thick layer of sand to absorb the blood of these fights. Gruesome..
There would be these guys dressed up like gladiators hanging outside the Colosseum. It must have been unbearable wearing that thick costume in the summer. Noticed a few of them would remove their fake armour, presumably to cool down, during moments when business ain’t that brisk. Obviously, nothing is free so a picture with these guys is gonna cost you some but I am not sure how much.
After the Colosseum, we headed towards the Roman Forum, which is just nearby. Some over a thousand years or so ago, this place would be filled with structures, temples and buildings and had served as Rome’s political and commercial centre. Much of the surviving remnants of the past are now in the form of broken columns, and uneven rocks and boulders.
Walking through the Roman Forum in this heat really got to me. There’re no shade. The sun’s blazing. Our drinking water’s running out. I had truly underestimated the heat. A refill of our water bottle from a nearby fountain had provided much relief. It’s so hot that we had returned to our hotel to stay away from the sun until the late afternoon where we continue with the rest of our itinerary.
The days are also long during the summer so the sky’s still quite bright even at 8pm. Since we are not used to seeing bright blue skies in the evenings, this kind of give us a false perception of time. Hence, we often have dinner around 8pm plus since it seems it’s still early.
By 5pm, we’re out of the hotel towards the Spanish Steps. It’s a series of steps between the Piazza di Spagna at the base and Piazza Trinità dei Monti. Lots of tourists there as well. That also means lots of touts- Guys holding a bunch of roses or selfie sticks, attempting to sell them to you. To avoid these touts, very straight-forward, never express any interest or even look at them, and never ever accept whatever they hand to you cos that’s where they will ask for payment and would be real hard to shake them off.
There’re quite a number of shops along the streets near the Spanish Steps. A lot are branded stuff which I am not really into. I am also a little tired, no thanks to the lack of sleep on the flight. Might be good to turn in early since our day would start early for our visit to the Vatican City, the smallest independent state in the world.
The next morning, we left around 9am plus and walked towards the Vatican City, which is only 10mins plus walk from our hotel. Before we can enter into St Peter’s Square, we had to ignore the numerous touts lurking outside, many holding signs with the words “Skip the line (or queue)” on them. As you walked past them, you can hear them calling you out and saying they have tickets to the museum. One lady had even tried to pass me a map which I had ignored her and I heard her muttering, “I am just trying to help.” Yeah, right.
When we’re at St Peter’s Square, I was actually more struck by the INSANE LONG queue for St Peter’s Basilica. Seriously, how long would it take for the last person in the queue to finally enter the basilica. Luckily, we did not join in the queue and since we had bought the tickets to the Vatican Museum online, we decided not to be distracted by this crazy queue and quickly head towards the museum, which the entrance is located the other side of the wall that encloses the city. In fact, there’s a direct link to St Peter’s Basilica, after finishing the visit of the museum.
Sending postcards from the smallest state in the world seems to be a cute idea so yes, we had sent a postcard to ourselves. The postal service is literally known as the snail mail cos it’s been coming to 2 weeks since our visit to the Vatican City and our postcard still hasn’t arrived!
The Vatican Museum is huge and probably take 2 hours to tour. It supposedly contains the world’s largest private art collection. Looks like it as we passed by marble sculptures of naked/half-naked statues, beautiful and elaborate paintings on canvas and on the ceilings in typical Baroque style and of course, the key attractions- Raphael’s rooms, the gallery of maps and finally, the Sistine Chapel painted by the illustrious Michelangelo.
Although the website and signs onsite stated that shorts and tops showing the shoulders are not allowed into the museum but I’d noticed many had flouted that rule. Maybe it’s too hot and there are just too many people to manage so the guards had decided to be more flexible and just let anyone in?
For some reason, I am a little sensitive towards viewing paintings from centuries ago. For certain paintings or even sculptures, I will get goosebumps, even in this hot summer. I dunno if it’s psychological or… erm…you know… The hubby thinks I cannot visit any museums but that isn’t possible. I guess I just can’t stare too long at a painting then.
We didn’t spend much time at the Sistine Chapel. It’s too crowded. To get to St Peter’s Basilica, turn right straight from the chapel and you’ll get to the basilica in a few mins. This exit is sometimes termed as the “secret passageway” though it didn’t seem too secret since we joined a herd of folks going through this way.
Named by St Peter who was supposedly crucified here, St Peter’s Basilica is breath-taking. His tomb is located beneath the basilica. We didn’t get a chance to visit the dome for a view of the city. Think there was a very long queue for that and we’re not in the mood to queue up for anything.
It seems that Italians believe that the air-con and even ice are bad for health but they seem ok with gelato? Hmm.. Anyway, gelato shops are common in Italy. Can you imagine we ate gelato everyday, as if we had never eaten ice-cream in our life? A cone of 2 scoops of gelato is cheaper here than in Singapore but we had also encountered pretty pricey ones which we avoid. Although gelato have lower calories than typical ice-cream, it is still quite fattening. Well, when we’re on vacation, diet don’t matter. LOL!
Speaking of diet, we ate quite a fair bit.. hee… but I would only highlight the hits of this trip. We had a couple of misses where the food wasn’t that great so I shall not waste my time to talk about them.
The next day, we had joined the city tour that is part of our package, though most of the time, it’s still free and easy. Since the cost of these city tours are already built into our trip cost, we shouldn’t miss them. They had also save us some places to plan into our itinerary.
Just to brisk through what we had visited, our first stop was the famous “Trevi Fountain”. Now you might be wondering why the picture (below) of the fountain seems incomplete, like where’s the gushing water? You know what, the fountain is going through some restoration works 😦
So we didn’t stay too long at the Trevi Fountain since there isn’t really much of a fountain to see. At least, the statue of Neptune (middle) and the other statues are still intact so it’s still better than nothing.
Moving on, we visited the “Pantheon“. Constructed and dedicated around AD118 and AD 125, this is a temple dedicated to the pagan gods before Rome officially converted to Christianity sometime by AD 400. The guide had explained that the worship of pagan gods usually involves much burning of offerings, hence there was an oculus in the dome of the Pantheon to allow the smoke to escape.
Since there is literally a hole in the roof to let the smoke out, naturally it will let the rain in during rainy days. To prevent something terrible like *gasp* flooding in the temple, the guide then explained that the floor is actually slightly tilted and there’re also some holes at the point where the floor’s tilted towards, so as to let the water flow out. Ingenious!
The Pantheon is also considered the most preserved building of ancient Rome. While many structures of that time had been destroyed or re-built, the Pantheon had very much remained as its original structure other than, I supposed, some restoration works.
The tomb of the famous Renaissance painter, Raphael, is also located in the Pantheon. He died at 37. That’s really young.
We left the Pantheon after some 10mins. Had walked past the Palazzo Madama before stopping at the Piazza Navona for around 10mins.
The city tour ended at St Peter’s Square at the Vatican City. Since we’re here the day before, we didn’t stay long and decided to have some gelato before returning to the hotel to wait for the transfer to the train station.
We left Rome in the early afternoon for our next destination- Florence.
The train had passed by acres of farm land. To pass time, I had watched “Unfriended”, which I’d downloaded in my phone.
Italy is one of the destinations in my travel list, particularly Florence of all the cities in Italy. This brings me to the time which I had taken a module on European history and the Renaissance period was one of the topics in that module. The descriptions of the art and architecture had piqued my interest. Since Florence is considered the birthplace of the Renaissance era, I had made a mental note that I would like to visit this city someday. Fast forward to some time last year, watching a few episodes of the TV series “Da Vinci’s Demons” had revived that thought again. And now, my wish had come true!
Our hotel was located near the Ponte Vecchio. It is the oldest bridge in Florence and the only one which had survived WWII while the others had been destroyed. Anyway, this isn’t just a bridge, there are also shops located on the bridge which this concept had existed even way back to the 13th century. Today, these are mainly goldsmiths and jewellery shops and there’s a reason for that. In the past, there were a mishmash of shops including butchers and fishmongers, and these caused so much filth and stench that the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand I, issued a decree that only goldsmiths and jewellers were allowed to operate on this bridge.
Quite a number of stalls selling artwork and paintings. Many do not have a license to sell so whenever anyone spot a police car coming, they would hastily scramble their goods and fled. Not sure if the police are serious about addressing this problem cos we never see any arrests. In fact, we saw a police car deliberately accelerating towards this illegal vendor while he looks to be running for his life, braked so hard to give off the loud screeching sound probably to add on to the “scare” effect, one of them opening the door furthering enhancing the effect until the vendor fled out of their sight and dropping one of his paintings in the process. If the authorities are serious about tackling street touts, then they ought to do something about it rather than just scaring the living daylights out of them cos that is only temporary and when the police is out of sight, these vendors will return again. What a waste of public resources! Unless the aim is just to patrol around to ensure nobody messes around?
Walking further, we reached the Piazza della Repubblica (site of the forum, centre of the city) and the Piazza della Signoria. At the latter, there were many sculptures but some are replicates.
An example of a replicate would be Michelangelo’s “David”… In fact, there’re many replicates of the “David” in the city.
The original one, in all its magnificent glory in every angle, is in the Galleria dell’Accademia (“Academy Gallery”). When I posted this on Facebook, a friend seems to think I have an obsession with this naked statue. Another commented she can see his ribs. Aiyo… This is one of the most acclaimed and famous work of art in history and you all think I am erm, dirty minded?? Tsk tsk tsk… LOL!!
The visit to the gallery is part of the city tour which took place the next day after we had arrived. Even though the tickets were bought in advance but the queue to enter is still long though not as long as those who are buying the tickets on the spot. We had waited less than 30mins before we enter. The gallery isn’t very big but like the Mona Lisa in the art gallery section of the Lourve in Paris, most, if not all, would go straight for the David. While there are also many other sculptures, they seem to pale in comparison to the David, not by the detail of the artwork but the attention it receives.
Another key structure and a highly-visited place by tourists is the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. Designed and built by Brunelleschi, the cathedral took years to construct, starting from 1296. Although the city tour had included this cathedral in the itinerary, we had also check out (though did not enter cos the queue is, as expected, freaking long) the architecture.
Had also noticed these creative “Stop” signs along the street. Not sure if these are deliberately designed or are products of vandalism. Regardless, they are cute.
Other than the San Lorenzo market, there are also quite a number of such stalls selling leather goods and other stuff like T-shirts and shawls. But the San Lorenzo market is worth a visit. Most of the leather products are quite nice and at a good price. A good size cow-leather bag had cost me around EUR35 (around SGD56) and this is real leather. There are PVC bags that had cost more than that, even exceeding SGD100, depending on the brand. The hubby bought himself a leather belt. Although it seems right that we should bargain for these stuff, but I am not ready fond of haggling over prices especially if it is just a mere savings of a dollar or two. If I find something reasonable and I really like it, I’ll just get it. If I am in the mood, maybe I may attempt to bargain and save myself a dollar. Otherwise, if I don’t find something worth it and not in a desperate need to own it, I’ll just pass it.
Another favourite place is the Centrale market which opens till around 2pm. I love to visit local markets though I believe some of the products and their prices aim to target tourists as well since quite a fair bit would visit Florence. It is also great that the market is generally quite clean. Many stalls are selling usual Italian products such as olive oils, herbs and limoncello (a lemon-flavoured liqueur usually taken after a meal as a digestif). I had tried that in Barcelona. Compliments of this home-style like restaurant and didn’t really like it enough to get a bottle. Had bought a bottle of truffle oil and a couple packs of herbs for some friends as souvenirs and myself.
We find this particular brand of gelato “Venchi” pretty good so much so that we had visited their shops several times. I find their milk-based (e.g. chocolate, hazelnut etc) flavours more intense than the fruity ones. But in such HOT weather, I tend to go for the refreshing and tart flavours. Lemon is the best!
Of all the restaurants, we like the food from Caffe Rivoire, located at the Piazza della Signoria. The waiter is also very friendly and had gamely (or rather, helped himself) pose in our wefie.
Their seafood pasta is flavourful. Not too oily and the pasta texture is just nice. The gnocchi are chewy with a very tasty tomato-based sauce that goes well with these fluffy potato and flour nuggets. Their hot chocolate is one of their specialities. Thick and luscious, it would be perfect for a wintry season but in this hot summer, not so much. The tiramisu, however, is slightly on the dry side. Not too bad but I am not that fond of anything that is coffee-flavoured so we had only tried Tiramisu twice (the other one is in Venice) in the entire trip.
As I watched the sun set over Tuscany, how I wish we had extended one more day in Florence. It would be lovely to visit outside the city.
The next day, we had made our way to Venice.
Our hotel transfer met us at the train station and brought us to…. a boat! That’s the only way to get to Venice. In the city, there are virtually vehicles and the only way to get through the veins of canals in the city is none other than by boat or other means of water transportation. I wonder if most people have boat licenses in Venice.
When I think of Venice, I can’t help recalling the famous “I am a Jew” and “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” dialogue from Shakespeare “The Merchant of Venice”. Oh and there’s also “Romeo and Juliet” but that’s set in Verona.
Of all the hotels, we are the most dissatisfied with the one in Venice. Shall not name it directly but I will give a hint. It is named after a famous smooth-talking playboy in Italy during the 18th century. Firstly, there is only wifi connection in the lobby and it’s weak. Ok fine but the worst was, our overseas data roaming does not work in our room! The hotel maybe small but I had stayed in small hotels which are still reasonable but the room in this hotel is rather bare. Can’t believe it is considered a 3-star hotel. More like a 2-star (perhaps, even 1-star) masquerading as a 3-star hotel.
Venice is often regarded as one of the most romantic cities in Europe. It is not hard to imagine why. Images of gondolas cruising down the narrow canals flanked by old-style architecture does exude a rather romantic aura. But it is also one of the highly visited cities in Europe so you can also imagine the throngs of tourists jostling through the equally narrow walk-ways. Where is that romantic feel??!! Urgh!
Despite the crowd, there is still that old-age charm about Venice though the hubby begs to differ. St Mark’s Basilica is a key attraction. Named after the city’s patron saint, St Mark, there was a story that his remains were stolen by some merchants from Alexandria during 828 AD and brought back to Venice, packed in chests full of vegetables and pork to avoid being detected by the Muslims. The return of St Mark’s remains to Venice was considered a great achievement for the city.
During the day till late evening, St Mark’s Square would be flooded by tourists as well as pigeons and also the touts, who not only sell roses, selfie sticks and what not, but also sell seeds that can entice these pigeons to feed from your hand. Erm, unhygienic much?
There are also many cafes along the inner parameters of the square. Had read online that these are all tourist traps where the prices of the food and drinks are marked up and not that delicious. As many had provided live music, there’re also warnings about an additional charge for music. Dunno how true cos we didn’t bother to pop by these cafes.
Don’t you think this red marble lion looks awfully sad? LOL..
As there are just too many narrow walkways snaking through the city, it is very easy to get lost. And this is precisely what a few travel websites had advised: Just get lost in Venice! Cos you’d never know what interesting shops or sights you will encounter.
I am expecting these gondola operators to play music (the kind played by an accordion) and serenade to the couple in their gondola. But no leh… a lot of them look quite grouchy. Haha.. Must be the hot weather. Can understand why nobody have the mood the sing while heaving as they rowed through the canals and to also take note not to bump into the gondola in front and at its side. At crowded parts of the canal or bottleneck areas, I can’t help thinking of bumper cars, since everyone seem so close to each other, but without the extreme bumping.
The super crowded Rialto Bridge is the oldest bridge that cross the Grand Canal.
Common souvenirs would be in the form of these Venetian masks, typically used during carnivals. Some of them look very creepy especially the one with the long beaks. Typically donned by doctors, particularly during the “Black Death” period, where these long beaks were meant to create that distance between the doctor and the disease-infected patients. There would also be this sponge of a concoction of herbs that would be placed in the tip of this beak to neutralise the spread of these diseases to the wearer. Dunno how effective is that.
In the evening, Venice is pleasant cos the weather is cool. The afternoon is just so unbearably hot that even with an umbrella, I had to go back to the hotel to take a short break in the afternoon (just like Rome) until the evening time when the sun is about to set.
In terms of food, we had more hits in Venice than the other cities. One of the restuarants, “Antica Sacrestia”,has a rather unique decor steeped in medieval history. I am rather excited by their lemon plant cos I have not seen one before. Us urban folks really need to get out and see more nature huh.
A Milanese speciality is squid with polenta. In fact, polenta is supposed to be a staple in a peasant’s diet but somehow it grew in popularity. I like polenta. Reminds me of solidified couscous. However, I find the squid ink sauce rather salty.
Another good find is Rosopomodoro for its excellent wood-oven pizza. Their pizzas are done the way I like them. Thin base with a chewy outer crust.
The Osteria Ai Tre Leini is also good. Not just for the service but for the quality of their food. I had the grilled sea bream which taste really fresh.
Our last stop is Milan.
Of all time, the air-con in the train that we had taken from Venice to Milan chose to break down!! It’s a torturous 2 hour plus of stuffy ride. Everyone was fanning like crazy and probably wish the train has wings instead.
The air-con in our hotel pick-up car had never felt so good. Having visited cities that are rather traditional over the past few days, Milan feels more city-like even though they do have their fair share of old-style architecture of yesteryears.
Several people have told me that Milan is boring and there’s nothing much except shops and oh, the Duomo. Well, that is kind of true cos so far, we had only visited the Duomo and the area around it.
Since we will be traveling quite a bit via the subway, we had bought the Milano card. I guess many Italians would choose to visit the other cities instead of Milan cos it seem relatively less crowded than the other cities.
And there’s also the Gallery Vitorrio Emanuele… Nothing much other than a couple of restaurants and shops.
As usual, quite a few touts trying to sell their wares here. One of them even had the audacity to attempt hooking one of those bracelets simply made of colourful threads onto the hubby’s bags, only to receive a loud “Go away” from him. Haha…
We found this wonderful spot, located at the basement, which allows people to rest. Think I had taken a very short nap while resting on one of these chairs. Too comfy!
The next day, we had visited the Sforzesco Castle.
Other than the impressive medieval-like castle infrastructure, there’s nothing much that interest us in the museums/gallery in the castle.
On our last day, the hubby said we must visit the San Siro Stadium. Other than his favourite Liverpool, he also likes AC Milan.
Hey look! I am in the front seat of the train! Brings back childhood memories where I enjoyed sitting in the front seat on the upper deck of the double-decker bus. I’d always imagine I am driving the bus. Ironically, I do not like driving today. Haha…
The visit in San Siro took less than 2 hours including visiting the very small shop and the equally small museum. Can’t compare to the Liverpool museum and shop in Anfield. The hubby is not impressed.
But he’s still enthusiastic in posing with statues of past AC Milan players in the museum or the other artifacts like trophies, jerseys etc.
Some hits and misses in the food department in Milan.
Someone recommended that we should try the Risotto Milanese. It’s a little too cheesy for me.
There you have it…. that’s all I have to say about Milan… Essentially, nothing much!
After seeing sculptures after sculptures of naked/half-naked bodies, it is refreshing to see this sculpture of a middle-finger outside the Borsa Italiana. Must be a bold decision to place such an unconventional and most would say, rude (?), sculpture outside this important building.
That wraps up our 9-day Italian vacation!! Despite the heat and all, I had enjoyed myself. Best if the weather is really not that hot and the crowd is lesser too.
Now that my vacation is over, other than one more short one in Penang in the latter part of Aug, I had better start preparing myself for school. One reason why this entry is late was cos I am caught up with all my readings for Term 1 and I am not even done yet! Arrgh!!