For a long time Italy has been my personal version of ‘Mecca’. For years now I have wanted to visit the country that is richly steeped in history, good food and (most importantly) sun. With all these expectations it could have been so easy for ‘the land of pizza’ to let me down, but it certainly did not. It was everything I had hoped for and more!
At the end of a very busy year at university, we began our fortnight interrailing in the capital of romance itself: Venice. And it was truly picture perfect. The setting sun bounced off the canals, making the dark rubbish-filled water glitter enticingly. Warm gentle light filtered out of cosy little cafes, outside of which numerous couples held hands across the table, drinking red wine and sharing a bowl of spaghetti, murmuring in low voices about just how much they loved each other. They were all completely oblivious to the poor violinist who desperately serenaded them, in an effort to gain an extra tip. And that’s not the only thing they were oblivious to. All around them, as the sun disappeared, the mosquitoes drew in…and began to bite. I am afraid to say this is where we stray away from the guidebook. No one really clicks that where there is water, there are bugs and they ate us alive! So much so that after three days, I looked as if I had caught chicken pox – not romantic in the least! And I am sorry to say, neither is the gondola. It’s just wobbly and far too close to the water.
What was more romantic, however, was our next stop – Verona. Home to the most famous romantic heroine of all time, our very first stop was to Juliet’s square (Casa di Giulietta). Smaller than expected but no less lovely, we read the endearing graffiti at the entrance and then met Juliet herself, standing demurely in the corner, having her breast casually stroked by strangers. This is meant to bring you luck for all your endeavours with men but I can’t say it has worked so far. And the culture did not end with the gratification of my inner literary ‘nerdiness’ but my musical ‘nerdiness’ was also appeased. Set in the beautiful Roman arena, we watched a real Italian opera, sung by real Italians IN ITALY! Whilst reading the translation on our phones’ was a pretty perfect evening.
I wanted to stay there longer, especially when our next stop in Bologna did not go to plan at all. Whatever people say about Bologna’s un-touristy loveliness and gorgeous porticoes, the only thing I will take away from there is the unhelpfulness of the locals on the bus. When attempting to reach our hotel, we ended up going in completely the wrong direction, right out of the city. It was the only time in the fortnight away that I attempted to stammer through some Italian, and it did not go very well because the reply was: ‘I can speak a little English’. Hmmmm…
Needless to say we didn’t stick around long and headed swiftly on to Florence, the home of leather and beautiful art. In fact there was almost too much art and after going around the Uffizzi gallery, I vowed that I never wanted to see another Madonna and Child painting again – whether it was done by Botticelli or not! I had obviously had enough of it completely by the final day because whilst trying to take a (forbidden, oops!) photograph of a statue, I managed to almost knock it off its pedestal, causing an alarm to sound aggressively in the room. We were almost at the end of the gallery (and luckily there was no attendant in that particular room) so we made a break for it! Rushing down the steps that led to the exit, I lost my footing, twisting my ankle and falling flat on my bum to the surprise of the tourists and attendants around me. One sarcastically said ‘Attenzione!’ when I finally limped to the bottom of the steps and very helpfully held my hand down the last few steps. How very gentlemanly of him! Not exactly the quick getaway we were hoping for!
When we reached Naples that evening I added to my injuries by walking into a stone pillar causing a deep gash down the length of my shin. It was a little bit embarrassing to greet my new hostel manager absolutely covered in blood, like a child. Despite these wounds, however, I still succeeded in climbing Vesuvius the very next morning, one of the proudest achievements of my life. Yes, this dangerous (and still active) volcano might have wiped out thousands of lives, but I made it to the top! Charlotte – 1 Vesuvius – 0, I say! Having climbed that it was only fitting we should have a look around the town that it destroyed and I was struck by the hugeness of Pompeii. Many of the buildings were nearly complete and it was easy to imagine it as a bustling town that used to be very much alive – until in a matter of hours it was all obliterated by the mountain I had just climbed, which we could still see looming over us from a distance. Charlotte – 1 Vesuvius – 1
Of course, there was a lot more history to see in our final stop, Rome. And we did see a lot of it, but by that time, quite frankly we had had enough of museums, galleries and ruins. So for one glorious afternoon we sat by the Trevi Fountain and, cooled by the breezy water and ice cream from the nearby San Crispino (the best ice cream in Rome, according to trip advisor!!), we just stayed there people watching. Dull as it may sound it was absolutely hilarious! People do the oddest things when they don’t think they are being observed – even cool, supposedly sophisticated Italians! Especially when they are posing for photographs!
On my return the question the majority of people asked me was: ‘So what’s your favourite place that you visited?’ and each time I had to disappoint them because I just couldn’t answer it. All I could talk about was ‘Venice’s stunning beauty and heavenly architecture’; ‘Verona’s cultural perfectness’; ‘Florence’s exceptional art’; ‘Naples’ gritty realism’ and ‘Rome’s fabulous history’. It was a trip I will never ever forget. And I think Verdi got it just about right when he said: ‘You may have the universe… if I may have Italy’. And that seems like a fair deal.