I’ve mostly lost interest in writing travelogue posts. There are probably thousands of other travel blogs out there with all the details about the best places to visit in Italy. One of the main reasons I started this blog was as an online journal to document our family’s travels, what we’ve learned, and the things we want to remember. And while we’ve seen some amazing and beautiful sites in Italy, there are prettier photos and more impressive descriptions elsewhere on the web. So, while I’ll mention a few sites in this post, I’ll focus more on writing about my personal experience here, my impressions of the place, and what’s been going through my head as I travel.
A Few Comforts
First, I’d like to give some general impressions overall. So far, we’ve been to Rome, Naples, Pompeii, and Positano. We’re currently in Florence (our favorite place here so far) and I’ll be writing about that and more in the next post. Having been in many poorer Southeast Asian countries for the past year and a half, I was reminded of a few first world comforts I had forgotten about, as soon as we entered the country. Things like streets without potholes and garbage, safety rails, fast highways with relatively little traffic and cars that mostly stay within the lines, potable water from the sink, and drinking fountains in public areas. For the first time in years, we’re also surrounded mostly by people who look like us. Having become accustomed to looking like outsiders, it’s been a pleasant surprise to occasionally be mistaken for Italians. At least, until we try to speak the language. Knowing Spanish has helped a lot, though.
Most bathrooms in Italy are also equipped with a bidet, which I find a fairly inefficient way to wash the behind, compared with the spray nozzles of Indonesia and Malaysia, and especially the high-tech toilets in Japan. It’s better than only having toilet paper available (eww) but to have to get up and move to a different seat for thorough cleaning seems unnecessarily awkward. Usually, the nozzle position isn’t even adjustable.
Food is Good. Variety Stinks.
As everyone says, the food in Italy is delicious. I think the pizza is especially wonderful. Crispy yet chewy crusts topped with delicious flavors and cheeses. And we’ve had amazing gelato almost every day! I do love the food here. However, the variety is very limited. It’s difficult to find anything besides Italian restaurants. I’ve seen an expensive sushi place or two, and a closed down Indian joint, but it looks like the Italians like to stick to their own cuisine for the most part. Personally, I got tired of eating it after only a few days, and longed for thai curries, organic salads and rice.
My food cravings weren’t helped by the fact that Italians don’t eat what I consider a healthy breakfast. A few sugary pastries and coffee will usually do them. And not many restaurants are open in the morning that would serve anything else. For lunch and dinner, it’s difficult to get a balanced meal at restaurants because anything with vegetables or meat is considered its own course, and is too large for me to eat in one sitting along with the other courses. I suppose if I wanted to spend 3-4 hours eating, I could do it, but most restaurants close down for the entire afternoon and don’t open until 7pm, and keeping my kids entertained at those late hours I think would be easier done at home than at a restaurant waiting for our food to digest. And we have other things we would rather do.
Fortunately, we’ve been renting apartments wherever we go, so we’ve had a kitchen, and have purchased groceries to make our own meals, which we’ve especially appreciated at breakfast time. We’ve been able to find, particularly here in Florence, a great variety of delicious fresh fruit, including deeply missed raspberries and blueberries, which we’ve been alternating between guzzling and savoring.
This time of year, it’s pretty hot during the day (up to 37 C / 100 F), but not very humid, so it’s tolerable for us, at least in the shade, and if we stay hydrated. It also stays light until very late, and because the restaurants don’t open until after 7pm, our sleep schedule has been somewhat altered, where we’re staying up pretty late each night. We have yet to move into the local routine of getting up early anyway, then taking a nap in the afternoon. We mostly just get a late start to the day. But the late night culture here is a lot of fun. Kids running, couples kissing, music playing. It’s a nice vibe, especially here in Florence.
It’s true, Italians get pretty animated when they talk. We’ve heard a lot of raised voices, people who sound angry yelling at each other and waving their hands, whether employees to bosses, girlfriends to boyfriends, or service people to tourists. But something about it seems non-threatening. It quickly passes, and then the people seem to go on about their business as if nothing unusual happened. Sometimes they even smile. This kind of behavior would stir a completely different scene in most Asian countries. People might stare in shock or look away in an uncomfortable embarrassment, and it would possibly become a matter of shame for the person who expressed their emotion. For most of my life, I would have judged this Italian way of expression as hostile or at least inconsiderate, but now I appreciate the honesty and think it’s probably healthy that these emotions are culturally accepted and aren’t being kept in the shadows.
Now, a few city-specific highlights.
Visiting the Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica was the highlight of Rome for me. I was especially impressed with St. Peter’s. The detail in every column and crevice, from floor to ceiling was astounding! And it was incredibly spacious! Of course the artwork throughout the museum was also breathtaking. There was so much to see, our guide said if you stopped for 2 minutes before each piece of artwork, it would take something like 64 years to see it all.
I was also impressed with the Pantheon, although I would have loved to see it before it was taken over by the Christians, and still had the marble and gold and the Roman statues, etc.
We’re lucky to have some extended family living in Rome, and we enjoyed a nice visit with them at their house. They have 5 girls at home, and our girls had a lot of fun playing with them while the adults talked. This may have been the highlight of Rome for at least one (if not all) of our daughters.
Besides seeing some of the other tourist sites, resting in the apartment, getting over jet lag, walking around a local market, and eating a lot, these were the things I remember most about Rome. You can also read Emily’s thoughts about Rome on her blog.
Set alongside a lovely bay, and towered over by Mt. Vesuvius, Naples (Napoli) is a picturesque city. We stayed up on the hill surrounded by colorful apartment buildings and a splendid view. Here, the roads are narrow and winding, but there is a nice train system and several trams (funiculare) running throughout the day to take us to different parts of town without too much walking.
The food was especially good in Naples, and cheaper than Rome. The pizza was divine, as it should be for the place that invented it. Marie had her 8th birthday here and we celebrated with a delicious strawberry ice cream cake, bubble gum, bubbles, and some fancy Italian make-up.
There are some cool castles in Naples, and we got to see two of them, along with an impressive structure in the center of town which I believe used to be (or still is) a bank, but also has many other shops in it.
We just made a day trip to Pompeii from Naples, and decided to check it out ourselves rather than with a guide, because from past experience, we know that with large scale ruins like this, we prefer to go at our own pace, see what we like, and can get most of our questions answered from the Internet anyway.
Pompeii is an impressive city, especially being over 2,000 years old. It was sobering to envision what life would have been like for its inhabitants before the city was destroyed by the nearby volcano which covered everything in ash. It was very hot there, but despite what reviewers said, there was shade both inside and beside the buildings. We mostly got tired from walking because it’s such a huge site. But the satellite view on Google maps helped us know where we were at and where to go. We sat in the stadium where plays would have been performed. We saw people covered in ash, trying to take their last breath. We saw the brothel where the services offered inside were painted above the doorways. We saw their public forums, temples, bath houses, private residences, gardens, fountains, kitchens, and strolled through the streets where the sewage would have flown around the chariot wheels.
I was hot, and I was tired. But I was also humbled by what I saw, and grateful to be alive right now.
Next we visited Positano, along the Amalfi coast. What a beautiful site for a city! White, red, and yellow houses, built right on the cliffs overlooking the bay. We took a ferry to get there from Naples, but the train would have probably been easier and cheaper, followed by a 45 minute bus ride through the winding mountain roads, which for some reason only made me (and Emily) sick on the way back.
The disadvantage of living on a cliff in a place like Positano is, of course, stairs. Hundreds and hundreds of stairs. But the stairways lead through tiny alleyways with painted wooden doors, flowers, and the hillside peaking into view every once in a while. It’s really a lovely town, and the stairs aren’t so bad once you get closer to the beach. You can also take a bus coming back up.
This town is very expensive though. Accommodations, restaurants, transportation, and stores were charging much more than you’d pay for the same things elsewhere in Italy. I guess you’re paying for the location.
We had planned to make day trips to Amalfi, and to the island of Capri, but I felt more like staying in the apartment and relaxing, enjoying the view, swimming, reading, and playing with the kids, so Jen did a little shopping on her own one day while I did just that. We watched a funny movie one night called Just Visiting (2001) about a medieval knight and his servant who were transported into modern day Chicago. We’d never seen it, and we laughed very hard.
Throughout all our adventures in Italy, I’ve been trying to focus on being present to enjoy each moment, whatever it is, to feel the sensations and emotions in my body, no matter what they are, and without labeling them with thoughts. It’s an interesting challenge, and am finding much to appreciate in my inner and outer experience of life. I don’t know what adventures the rest of Italy will bring, but my goal is to be here now in my body to enjoy them as fully as I can.