May 25, 2017

Walk across the Tiber
I am not sure when the idea of travel blogging became a part of our vacation planning but now, it has become so embedded in us that everything we do and see needs to get immortalized ( too grand a word right!!) here. Visiting Italy was something we had on our minds since 2015 - somehow things never fell in place - it was either that it coincided with our India trip plans or finances never fell in place or our visa was getting renewed - something always ensured that our plans went down the drain. Everything did fit into the puzzle last month and our long awaited Italy trip was planned, executed and we are now reveling the glory. Oh, we are finally ‘Italy-cised’, that is our way of expressing our happiness in ultimately touring Italy. Well, it doesn’t mean that we toured the whole of Italy, we were able to fit in as much we could without rushing, and giving time to take in the fragrance of the blossoms.
Italy is adorned by beautiful historic churches and other monuments

Our trip was just for a week but we could go on about our experiences - a single write up would be gross injustice to the trip and hence we have decided to break it up into parts and take you on a photo journey that could well describe our travel episodes.

Segment 1 - Italy-cised :We attempt to illustrate our planning, itinerary, provide tips, general        occurrences and insights into some amazing food.

Segment 2 - Roaming the Rome and Walking the Vatican : Our experiences on roaming Rome by   foot and the tour through Vatican

Segment 3 - Escapade to the countryside - Tuscany and Umbria : We take you a photo journey through the beautiful country side

Segment 4 - Trek the terre - Cinque Terre(pronounced ‘Cheenqui’ Terre, which means 5 lands): Recounting our trekking experiences in Cinque Terre along with glimpses of our stop at Pisa and Milan

For a country like Italy with a long Mediterranean coastline, bountiful countryside and renaissance masterpieces, no research proved worthy enough. Nevertheless, our main resort were the beautifully written travel blogs that virtually guided us through the Italian streets onto the beautiful piazzas that helped shape our itinerary including all that we wanted into an 8 day plan. The tips provided by the bloggers were in reality quite helpful. A simple example would be the repeated requests by many bloggers to join the queue at the Palantine hills and Roma Forum to see the Colosseum than join the never ending queue at Colosseum which will in turn take you to Roma Forum and Palantine Hill. If it wasn't for this piece of advice we would have ended up at the long queue at Colosseum whereas the queue at Roma Forum was quite short that enabled us a quick entry.
Piazza Venezia
The ruins
A fountain welcomes you at every piazza
Every Piazza has a church too!

Once you have decided on your places of visit, lay down your itinerary, get your travel reservations done, book your accommodation and apply for the visa. We chose airbnb and agriturismo websites for our stay bookings. Once you zero in on the location you want to stay, airbnb gives you a range of options to choose from - whether you want a shared room, a private room or an independent house along with the price ranges and photos of the stay. These stays are cheaper than the hotel stays and also you get to interact with the locals at a personal level.  If you are not sure of your place of stay and want to have the flexibility of cancelling it later - choose the accommodation that has flexible cancellation policy. Moderate and strict cancellation policy accommodation levy some amount as airbnb service fee on cancellation (Make sure you read and understand the cancellation policy). Yeah, we failed to read it well and did lose a couple of Dirhams :(  Agriturismo offers great farm stays in the beautiful Italian country side. If you want to stay away from the hush and rush of city life then head over to agriturismo to survey your options.  If public transport is your means of commute, always look for places where public transportation is easily accessible. Interact with your host even before your travel and establish a good bond that way you would get to live the life of a true local.
An upmarket area at the Spanish steps
Glimpse of St Peters Basilica

Things to carry

Make sure you check the weather forecast so you know what clothes to carry along with you. We did commit a huge blunder in that assessment of ours. Italy was colder than we thought it to be. Italian weather on average hits 12 to 15 degree centigrade through the month of April. We had situations where the temperature dipped to 7 degrees and I refused to step out of the car as my teeth kept chattering the moment I got out. My clothes were a little too thin for the weather, I learnt my lesson and I sure am going to take more of winter clothes the next time we plan to travel in the cold season. Travel as light as you possibly can, you may have to lug the luggage across streets, cobbled paths and may be even hill tops. So be prepared for the eventuality. Ensure that you have all your travel documents securely kept. If you are not comfortable carrying it around, have photocopies of it and the originals safe at your accommodation.

Our Itinerary

After several additions, cancellations and re-additions our itinerary looked as below -

Day 1 - Reach Rome and check into our accommodation.
Day 2 - Tour Rome
Day 3 - Roam Vatican
Day 4 - Take a train to Florence. Rent a car and drive to our stay in Tuscany
Day 5 - Explore Tuscany
Day 6 - Travel to Umbria and take cooking class
Day 7 - Train to La Spezia. Stop by Pisa.
Day 8 - Trek the Cinque Terre
Day 9 - Explore Milan in 4 hours. Take the return flight

Initially, we also wanted to spend a couple of days in Milan visiting Lake Como, Bellagio, Varenna and also wanted to take  the Bernina Express a.k.a the Little Red Train from Tirano (near Milan) to Chur (in Switzerland) which will take you through the breathtaking Swiss Alps, but due to time constraints, decided to save it for another time. That’s how we ended up returning from Milan, in case you were wondering.
Along the Trastevere
Drive through the countryside
Advance Bookings

We also did advance booking for the Colosseum entry here and also booked a guided tour of the Vatican through Viator. We regretted not having booked a guided tour for the Colosseum. Even if you are not into architecture, ruins or paintings, Rome is a city which will make you fall in love with it. Just like we did. We were never into architecture and our only idea for visiting Rome was just to see the so called famous ruins and buildings. In fact we were less excited about the Rome part of the trip. But today without doubt we can tell you that was the best part of our trip. We loved our walk through the ruins and the churches and we just fell in love with history. We would definitely recommend booking a guided tour of both the Colosseum and Vatican.

Getting around Italy

Rome definitely was not built in a day but surely can be conquered on foot that is if you are willing to walk! So forget renting a car in Rome - parking and driving can get a little messy. We saw vehicles moving in both directions on a single lane. We saw red lights being skipped and vehicles stopping for green lights and God alone knows how the owners managed to move the parked cars which seemed to be neatly wedged in between two cars without even an ounce of space in between. However, they were always patient for the crossing pedestrians.

ItalyDownload a metro map of Rome and it can get you almost anywhere. If not there are buses, the tickets for which can be brought from a Newspaper kiosk which is around every corner or you can also find them in the shops selling Tobacco ( always has T sign easy to recognize). It costs 1.50 euros a person and valid for 100 minutes from the time it is first punched. To move from one city to another there are trains available at frequent intervals. You could save a dime or may be two by pre booking on certain trains like the frecciarossa or frecciabianca (fast trains). Advance booking can also be done for inter city trains, however you do not have reserved seats, but that is okay as there are plenty of seats available. Intercity and regional train tickets need to be punched/validated at the slots on the platforms before entering the train. However the speed trains do not require punching and the ticket collectors would check it once you are in the train. At the platform, you have ticket kiosks that help you book - I found it interesting that you need not tender the exact amount while booking - the machine gives you back the exact change ( I loved the 'clunk clunk' noise of the change dropping). So book your tickets, search for your platform number on the digital display boards and head over to the right platform.
Our companion touring the countryside - rental car
If you plan to explore the country side, renting a car is highly recommended. We highly endorse renting a car to explore the countryside as the scenery is spectacular. We researched, chose Hertz through Autoeurope and did the pre-booking. We compared the fares between takes you to the US website) with got us a better fare. Always go with renowned rental agencies like Hertz, Europcar as they are spread out across multiple locations. Do not go with the cheaper options out there, as reviews aren’t as good. Booking through Hertz was a breeze.

Beware of pickpockets

You will have warning signs displayed almost everywhere. We made sure we had each other’s back. We carried backpacks and had our wallets and mobiles safely tucked in the interior pockets and ensured that we never left the bags unattended even the suitcases. One incident, which I assumed was an attempt at pick pocketing was at one of stations when a woman came over to us incessantly spoke in Italian asking us something pointing to her ticket. Even when we spoke English, she did not step away. At that moment, I felt a group of people gather around us and felt a tug at my bag, I swirled around, removed my bag and hugged it. One in the group, spoke in Italian seemingly helping the woman with the ticket and they eventually moved away from us. For all I know, I could be wrong, it would have been a genuine case but I learnt my lesson of possible ways a person distracts you and someone using the distraction to pick something out of your bag. Dad and Mom had given incidents about pick pockets that happened during their group tour, so we were always on the lookout!

Learning Italian

Learning a few Italian words can go a long way. Despite being a tourist country most of the folks knew very little English, so it gets quite hard to communicate. We often had to end up using sign language to communicate. At Perugia, a very sweet old man desperately wanted to help us when we wanted help with directions, all we knew was English and all he knew was Italian. He tried his best explaining in Italian and Shibin happily nodded away not understanding a word of it for almost 10 minutes, not wanting to let him down.

Get a SIM card! 

Our biggest saving grace was an Italian SIM card that we bought on the first day which gave us gave us internet access, so google was always a click away. The telecom companies do have special SIM cards for tourists that are activated on purchase, one of the cheapest service provider is TIM which we purchased for 20 Euros which had a data package of 10 GB and around 1000 mins of local calls.
 (cheaper plans could be out there) Absolutely never buy the SIM from the airport, they charge you a hefty price!! 120 euros was the cost they demanded at the airport for the SIM!

Drinking Water

Carry water bottles with you. In Rome there are plenty of springs available where you can refill water, rather than having to pay for mineral water bottles which definitely does not come any cheaper. Pizza, pasta, gelato, bread, Panini - you have heard it all but this is where you get to try the Originals. The ones available across the globe have often been revamped to suit the regional flavors. The true Italian pizza has just a combination of 2 to 3 flavors maximum topped with cheese but definitely not a humongous amount of it. The crust is much lighter and often browned at the sides rather than the whole white bases that is available elsewhere.


Most of the places provide a basket of bread to go with the wine. This is not accompanied by olive oil or balsamic vinegar which apparently isn't Italian tradition but more of an updated version of the Italian food. The bread often comes with a hard crust - yeah yeah! Apparently that is the authentic bread, not the soft ones that we have from the bakers here. It can scar the roof of your mouth! Ouch!  Do not forget to try the ricotta cheese and the pecorino. I am in love with ricotta! Certain aged cheese could be too strong for your senses.
Pecorino goes absolutely well with honey!!

Focaccia is a must try in Cinque Terre - the freshly baked ones just out of the oven forms a lovely breakfast - have the ones topped with pesto; simply fabulous.  Pasta, ravioli, spaghetti - we dug our hands into all what we possibly could.

Every corner you turn to, you are sure to find a gelato place - try their amazing flavors. Gelato usually comes in two kinds - the fruit based ones and the milk based ones in either cone or cup and in different sizes. We always went in for two flavors in our cup or cone - I cannot pin point a single flavor and say it was good. All the 10 flavors we had were good and I cannot possibly single out one.
(we did try 10 flavors!) You could pick your food and have it on the go instead of having it in a restaurant and every piazza has a fountain and some steps too were you can rest your legs and enjoy your food. This way you do not lose time for exploring and you get to eat too.  If you see an amount charged on your restaurant bill as Coperto - do not be in for a shock it is nothing you ate. It is simply the tip they charge, saves you time having to think about how much to tip.
The beauty of Cinque Terre

With these tidbits, we are signing off on Italy-cised till we meet again Roaming the Rome and Walking the Vatican.

Please feel free to leave in your experiences during your travel in the comments below.

-Ria & Shibin

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