A 2 week Italian adventure
As some of you might have known, I’ve been on a bit of a break recently to traipse round Italy with my wife and our backpacks. Our 2 week mini-adventure has come and gone so I thought it’d make a nice blog piece to detail how it went!
Our itinerary was, for us, just right. There was quite a substantial amount of travel but it wasn’t too difficult to handle which allowed us to gain a fantastic snapshot of Italy. My wife has never been and I’ve only visited Rome so this itinerary really allowed us to gain a good oversight of the country and where we’d like to visit again in the future (spoiler alert: Tuscany!).
Day 1 – Landing in Napoli
Our flights were booked with Alitalia, however, due to Etihad’s numerous codeshare partnerships we flew on an Etihad aircraft from Abu Dhabi to Milan and then an Alitalia internal flight from Milan to Napoli.
Day 1 didn’t really count as a full day as we didn’t arrive at our Napoli hotel until about 10pm. First impressions of Napoli weren’t great. We had read that the city was a bit dirty and had a reasonably high level of crime but we were definitely caught off guard a bit. Maybe we’re a little spoilt as we live in Dubai which is so sanitized but we didn’t feel great about staying in Napoli.
It’s a shame, really. It’s a brilliant base to explore islands and the Amalfi Coast (which is why we decided to fly into Napoli) but it’s not somewhere we’d want to go back to in a hurry. One major positive though… I LOVE pizza and it was a wonderful experience to visit the birthplace of one of the world’s favourite foods. The pizza in Napoli was absolutely glorious.
Day 2 – Sorrento and Pompeii
Nice and rested, we got up quite early and then dashed to the train station as we were so keen to get our Italian adventure started. First stop was Sorrento which turned out to be one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. To get there, we rode the train from Napoli Central Station to Sorrento on the circumvesuviana line. Famous for its production of limoncella, this lovely little seaside town is often overlooked in favour of other towns further along the Amalfi Coast. I wish we had had more time to spend in Sorrento and we’ll definitely be travelling back.
Later in the day, we visited Pompeii and were, frankly, completely overwhelmed by the size of the ruins – they are HUGE. We didn’t book a tour around the site which, in hindsight, was a bit of a mistake. It wasn’t the easiest place to navigate and I’d definitely recommend using a tour guide to get the most out of a visit to Pompeii.
Day 3 – Ischia
Another early start and we were off to Ischia! The ferry from Napoli Beverello to Ischia Cassamiciola was straightforward though we didn’t realise our printed confirmations had to be exchanged for a printed ticket – almost missed the boat because of that! A note on this, Ischia also has another port called Ischia Porto so, if you go, try to catch a boat to the port that is nearest to your hotel.
We arrived at our hotel which was absolutely stunning. Il Monastero is a redeveloped monastery that forms part of the Castello Aragonese. This small outcrop just off the Ischia mainland is an incredible vantage point over the whole island and really looks like something from a postcard.
The hotel also boasts a fantastic vegetable garden which they use for the hotel’s restaurant – one of the best meals we had during our trip to Italy. I had melanzane parmigiana, spaghetti with pine nuts and raisins and beef filet with rocket and parmesan – the aubergine was a particular highlight. The hotel also makes their own wine which was a great experience to enjoy with dinner.
Ischia was a great island to wander round looking in the shops. It’s also famous for its thermal parks but, as it was a bit cloudy, we decided against this.
Day 4 – Off to Procida
We left Ischia just after lunch time and headed off to Procida (a nearby island to Ischia). Procida is kind of Ischia’s smaller, quieter cousin. Not many tourists at all which was something we really enjoyed after Ischia’s hustle and bustle. We spent most of the day sitting in the sun watching the world go by at Corricella, a lovely little colourful port and a fabulous spot to sit and do nothing at all.
It’s also worth visiting terra murata, a quaint, colourful street right next to Corrciella.
Day 5 – Travel day. Procida to Napoli to Florence
Day 5 started with an early boat from Procida back to Napoli and then straight to the train station. We had booked 2 seats on the Frecciarossa which is Italy’s flagship high speed train, operating at speeds of up to 360km/h. We flew through the Italian countryside and reached Florence just over 3 hours after leaving Napoli. The Frecciarossa was clean, efficient and on-time; a recommended way to find your way around Italy. Online booking was also straightforward, alternatively, speak to your travel agency.
We had rented a small apartment in the city centre of Florence which was an enjoyable way to see this part of Italy. It was especially nice that there was a washing machine to clean some clothes and, when you’re backpacking around, it’s great to be able to find an opportunity to wash clothes as it means, ultimately, you have to carry less!
Day 6 – Beautiful Florence
There’s nothing I can say that will do justice to Florence; it’s just a beautiful place and very, very romantic. We braved the 463 step climb to the top of the duomo which was well worth the sore legs; exceptional views of Florence. We also visited the Uffizi Gallery which hosts a plethora of art from around the world including Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’. The food in Florence was incredible with the gelato being a particular highlight.
At sunset, we took a ride on a gondola along the River Arno which was incredibly romantic and a really different way of seeing the city.
Day 7 – The Tuscan adventure begins
It’s possible to rent cars from nearer to the Florence city centre but I strongly recommend renting from the Florence Airport (very close to the city) if you’re heading out into Tuscany and Umbria. Florence has VERY strict punishments for unauthorised cars entering the city centre with very high fines. It’s better just to pick your car up at the airport as it’s only a 15 minute bus ride from the city centre.
If you’re driving into Tuscany, here’s some things to note:
- Italian motorways are tolled. You can pay with credit cards but it’s probably better just to keep some loose change for this
- Make sure you have a GPS unit or a GPS-enabled smartphone and pay close attention to it. I got lost.
- Make sure you drive along the SS222 route for a while through Chianti – it’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.
We had a room at a small farmhouse B&B called Follonico run by a lovely couple called Fabio and Suzanne. It is EXACTLY what you see in your head when you think of Tuscany. Intimate and surrounded by vineyards and hills, Follonico is a fantastic base for exploring the surrounding countryside and towns. We stayed there for 2 nights but, honestly, could have happily stayed there for the entire duration of our trip. The owners are excellent at helping you with day to day planning or doing reservations at nearby restaurants. They also put on a superb, and varied, breakfast every day using local, fresh ingredients.
That evening, Fabio got us a reservation at the nearby La Fratta farm which has its own restaurant specialising in bistecca alla fiorentina. I think there’s something absolutely wonderful about eating steak at a farm restaurant; you know exactly where your food has been sourced from. The steak was exceptional (as well as enormous) and is highly recommended.
Day 8 – Glorious Tuscany
Looking back, we both decided this was the best day of our holiday. We had a fantastic leisurely morning followed by picking up lunch from a little hill town called Pienza which we then took to a nearby hot springs. The water was incredibly warm, much like sitting in the bath, and was even more enjoyable with a full stomach of of delicious carved porchetta and freshly baked panino.
After the hot springs, we headed out to a small farm near our farmhouse B&B where we spent the afternoon on horseback trekking through Tuscan vineyards. A beautiful sunset, a fantastic guide and grapes eaten straight from the vineyard gave a wonderful, intimate exploration through the Tuscan heartland.
After this, we headed back to Follonico for dinner where Suzanne put on a great spread of antipasti and spaghetti al pomodoro.
Day 9 – Back to Florence
With very heavy hearts, it was time to leave Tuscany. This part of Italy is so beautiful that we almost felt as if we were being punished in same way by leaving! On the plus side, we were heading back to Florence for one more night so that made us a feel a little better.
In Florence, we stayed in a little hotel called Albergo Rapallo not far from the train station. The hotel was clean, fresh and I’d also recommend it as a great little location in Florence.
The afternoon was spent wandering around Florence and then, in the evening, we headed out for a pizza and gelato making class which was a brilliant experience. Really hands on and the class is accompanied by plenty of wine so it was great fun!
Pizza and gelato making class was from:
Day 10 – A short stop in Siena
Another heavy hearted morning as it was finally time to leave Florence! We checked out of the hotel and then headed to mercato centrale to grab some lunch. In my research before the holiday, I found out that a regional specialty for Florence was something called lampredotto. Bear with me here. Lampredotto is a type of offal (cow’s stomach) that is cooked, carved and thrown in a panino with hot chili sauce and salsa verde. A lot of people are a bit squeamish with offal but I’d recommend trying this as its absolutely delicious. My lampredotto was from a little food cart inside the central market called da Nerbone. Delicious.
The train from Florence to Siena was, again, very straightforward and not a very long ride at all. There’s something pretty magical about Siena. It’s a small town but very medieval and close together. Tiny, tiny alleyways meant there was always something to explore and discover. We also spent a lot of the day sat around piazza del campo (home of the palio horse race) which was another great place to watch the world go by… you might have realised by now that people watching is a particular hobby of mine.
We also visited the Basilica san Domenico where you can see a very important religious artefact – the mummified head of St Catherine. A bit morbid perhaps, but a fascinating piece of history.
Day 11/12/13 – Roma
Time to leave Siena and head to the final destination on our Italian tour. Rome was always going to be especially nice as my wife’s sisters were flying out from the UK to meet us. We don’t get to see them anywhere near as often as we’d like so we were both really looking forward to Rome. Again, we stayed in an apartment as it was an easy option with 4 travellers. A very strong recommendation for HakkaHouse (owned by a lady named Simona) as it was an excellent place to stay in Rome – nice and close to the city centre and the apartment was adorable.
Rome was a bit of a blur as we were constantly on the go. Highlights included:
- Visited the Torre Argentina cat sanctuary. Situated in the ruins where Caesar was murdered, this sanctuary provides respite for the cities stray and abandoned cats. As owners of 2 rescued cats we enjoyed seeing the sanctuary and seeing how they managed to make it work in the heart of a busy middle city. If you visit please do leave a donation as they are doing brilliant work.
- Fontana di Trevi – the magnificent fountains in the middle of the city are top of the list for many travellers. Gloriously romantic, don’t forget to throw a coin over your shoulder into the fountains as, legend has it, this means you’ll return to Rome one day!
- Colosseum – another ‘must see’ in Rome, it’s fascinating to visit and learn about the gladiatorial combat. It’s mind blowing to try to visualise the scenes that would have occurred here 2,000 years ago. A small side note, I bumped into a friend from Dubai on the platform of the Colosseo metro station – incredible coincidence.
- Pasta. Lots and lots of pasta! Quick recommendation for Spaghetteria l’Archetto near the Fontana di Trevi.
- The Pantheon was another brilliant part of ancient Rome to visit.
- Vatican City was hugely interesting and the Vatican Museums have a whole host of things to see – make sure you book in advance. We booked in advance and couldn’t believe how long the queues were for general admission.
After this rather busy itinerary, we headed home. Italy was, quite honestly, a revelation and somewhere we want to travel to many times in the future. I think we got a pretty good glimpse of several parts of the countries though we also quite fancy a jaunt towards the north of Italy.
It’s a wonderfully warm country with even warmer people and a rich cultural background. Food lovers will also adore the country though do try to steer clear of the tourist traps as they can offer very sub par food at inflated prices – always best to try to work out where the locals eat!
I could easily write double or triple the amount of words I have here. For more information on Italy, or for help planning your own Italian adventure, then do tweet me on @ArabiTravel!