While I have considered the US (first NYC and now Northern California) home for the past 11 years, and was born in England and lived in The Netherlands, France will always be my home. It’s the country where I grew up, and I think in French as often as I think in English. I have to admit though, that even though I lived in Grenoble for all of those years, I never actually made the effort to travel to Italy! Just a couple of hours away by car and train and I never set one foot over the border. The closest I came to being in Italy was when I spent a few days on a ski resort that a close friend’s father managed (La Rosière), but due to my immensely unfabulous skiing skills I never made it over the hill to Italy. It wasn’t until I flew back to France on holiday in late 2006 that I decided to trek around Italy, and only then really because I was traveling with a friend who had never been to either country. Over the space of a little more than a week we went to Milan, Venice, Florence and Rome, and I really regretted never having been before!
After a few days in Paris and a few more with some of my friends in Grenoble we climbed onto a train in Grenoble’s Gare Europole and made our hungover way towards Italy (there wasno way I was leaving the Mark XIII sober in Grenoble, never happened before and I had to keep up the tradition). We had to change trains in Chambéry and from there jumped on a TGV that took us through the Alps to Milan. Train rides are my absolute favourite forms of transportation: they are comfortable, don’t cause travel sickness, comforting and roomy. I can read on them, look out of the window, sleep, eat, not worry about making toilet pit stops because there is a toilet in every wagon, and usually just spend the time thinking about life in general and imagining stories. Train rides are a great time of reflection for me, and I have traveled far and wide on different trains. Trains fares in France were already pretty expensive at the time (especially when you opted for the TGV), but they were very affordable in Italy, so that’s how we made our way around the cities. As always, everything was kind of by the seat of my pants… Hotels were booked the day before or day of and plans were made as and when we arrived. This has always been my mode of travel, as you can see in previous chapters (Aswan, Kibbutz, Barcelona).
The train ride to Milan was beautiful. I grew up in the Alps, mountains surrounding my home town, and it’s a view I miss on a daily basis. The train took us right through the mountains (literally), scaling around and through rock, over lakes and bridges and snow, finally dropping us off in Milano Centrale Railway Station. We took a little cab to our hotel, a non-descript room within walking distance from anything that we may have found interesting, and went in search of food and coffee. While the city is stunning with its cobbled streets, towering edifices and beautiful station, I found the city atmosphere itself a little cold and maybe even stand-offish. Then again, maybe I was also a little overwhelmed, going from what I considered my home town in France after a few years away straight into a country where I didn’t speak the language. Trying to find my footing so to speak… In any case my coffee was fantastic, my Panini delicious and the Duomo (cathedral) was absolutely breathtaking (and most likely still is). I wish I had had a better camera with me at the time, because I would have taken so many gorgeous shots!
I found that Italy was full of beautiful people, but Milan especially. A city populated by the gorgeous and the rich. Of course many places can look that way to the outsider, but that was the feeling I walked away with. It was however a lovely place to stroll around in the evening, choosing a place to dine at and another place to get dessert. It was also not the cheapest place to be, and because Venice and Florence were the two cities I really, really wanted to visit we got a one way ticket to Venice the following day without even booking a place to stay. We figured it would be easy enough once we got there! I highly recommend arriving in Venice by train as the views are amazing – Venice really is that city you imagine, the one you see in the movies and you get a great first overview of the city in a train.
The history of Venice is fabulous! Tiny islands connected by rivers and lagoons, buildings built on water, with foundations of wood and stakes. A city that has been in existence from as early as the 5th century! My active imagination conjured up images of a Shakespearian city: I would see Iago popping out of dark alleys and boats laden with gold chugging down the side streets (streams), pretty princesses and handsome soldiers strolling along riversides. My own idea of Venice wasn’t so far from reality really – Venice is visually just gorgeous. We found a lovely double hotel room right by the station and wandered around the streets, taking everything in. Venice is so quiet and quaint, no cars, just boats and gondoliers, just lots and lots of winding streets, bridges, canals and tiny waterways. The houses are so special, some ancient, some majestic and some both; windows decorated with hanging baskets looking across tiny bodies of water right into someone else’s window. I can imagine how easy it is to have a conversation with someone across the water, neighbours separated by a stream rather than a road. I love that everything is walkable, or accessible via some form of boat – even the ambulances are boats in Venice!
I can’t speak for someone who actually lives in Venice year round, but as a tourist everything seemed to slow down for us there. Just walking around and taking in the atmosphere, the people and the sights were exactly what I needed right at that moment in time. When I read through my journal the feeling of calm permeates through my etchings, and I can still see myself sitting at a table on a small piazza, enjoying an espresso and watching the world go by. I remember walking along the water and then suddenly arriving at the Piazza San Marco and being surprised at how busy and loud it was compared to the rest of the city. I do think that the relative quietness and affordability of everything was mainly due to the fact that we were there in the beginning of December, and while the weather was pretty mild and sunny it was nowhere near as packed as it probably is during the summer. In any case the Piazza San Marco was bustling with people and awe-inspiring in its beauty. From the Biblioteca and the Doges Palace to the statues of St Theodore and the Lion of Venice, and all of the intricate architectural designs in between, there was so much to feast our eyes on in the square. I would love to go back now and take hundreds of photos of pillars and walls and stones. We walked away from the piazza through tiny streets, peering into shops and restaurants, looking at menus and souvenirs and wondering where to go for dinner and lunch and breakfast.
One of the things that I was actually disappointed with during our first few days in Italy was the food. I’m a huge fan of Italian food and practically live on pasta, but most places we came across tended to cater towards tourism and presented the same menus in different formats, the same pasta dishes over and over again. Venice ended up being the one city where we only had one decent meal, and that came about after we really walked off the beaten track down some deserted side streets. I had baked gnocchi and it was absolutely divine, so good that I can still imagine the taste of it today. Other than that our meals in Venice were nothing to write home about, although my travel partner, not being the vegetarian I am, tried the black inky spaghetti dish which was more memorable in colour than taste really. It did give us the incentive to be a little more adventurous in our restaurant choices and to move away from the more popular areas towards more “local” fare.
Before we left Venice we made a stop at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection Museum on the Grand Canal, taking in some of her beautiful artwork (Picasso, Pollock, Calder) and the gorgeous garden full of statues. There are other museums that we probably should have taken time to visit too, such as the Doges’ Palace and the Museo Correr, and these are the type of things that one sometimes misses when traveling without really doing a ton of research on each location beforehand… I suppose you gain in surprise but sometimes lose out too. All part of the adventure though!
The train from Venice to Florence took between two and three hours and by the time we arrived in the rolling Tuscany hills the skies had begun to open and we arrived at our hotel soaking wet and ready to just stay there and not venture out again. Obviously we didn’t as there was no way that we were going to pay for room service, and miss out on seeing the city that I had dreamt of for years! We decided on two days and two nights in Florence and I was adamant about fitting in as much as physically and mentally possible. Even if the rain was pouring from the heavy grey clouds. It did end up clearing up for us when the sun started to set and we walked over the Ponte Vecchio, amazed that it was still standing in all its Medieval glory, diamonds and rubies peeking from the windows of the little jewelry shops along the sides. Big iron fleur-de-lys adorn the pillars, reminiscent of monarchies and times past. Florence feels old, ancient, dark and somewhat gloomy in its history; seeped in memories of times when life was more difficult. While the Tuscan countryside was so green and inviting, Florence felt slightly foreboding, but I suppose that was mainly due to the winter showers and dark hotel room that we were staying in.
Foreboding but completely breathtaking. Layers upon layers of tremendously intricate architecture and artwork, paintings and statues; homes that could have housed any a Shakespearian character, blending all the colours of Tuscany together, warm browns and oranges and terracottas. The streets were narrow and windy and all seemed to lead to the cathedral, stoic in its absolute grandeur. Florence was exactly how I imagined it would be, and even more. We drank wine sitting outside a restaurant and talked about life, imagining living in Italy rather than in NYC, ate some pretty delicious dishes and had to stop ourselves from touching Michelangelo’s David in the Galleria dell’Accademia. And for some reason we must have watched an Italian music channel or European MTV in the hotel because whenever I hear Muse’s Starlight I immediately think of Florence. And Tuscan pastries.
Florence to Rome takes less than two hours on one of Italy’s frequent fast trains, but Florence’s main trains station becomes a bit of a hellhole with people trying to get on and off trains from both ends, pushing and shoving as if each train is the last on earth. I recommend getting a train out of there at an off-peak hour, especially if you are traveling with luggage. We had already booked a hotel room in Rome in advance and were looking forward to dumping our stuff off and discovering the city that everyone talks about. Rome wasn’t the highest point on my list before we started the trip but by day one there it became my favourite. Rome reminded me of Paris, my beloved Paris, and we spent our days there running around the streets and thoroughly enjoying ourselves. Rome became the real holiday where we just let loose and had fun. We stayed at the Angel Hotel which was perfectly located for everything that we had planned on accomplishing (not far from San Pietro and right by the Tiber). Breakfasts of croissants and espresso out by the river for the next four days!
I always find that the best way to explore a city is on foot. This can lead to interesting walks, like the time when I thought we could walk back into Cairo from Giza, but most of the time it really helps find one’s footing and sometimes some lucky surprises. We walked a lot in Rome, visiting all the main sights, but also finding our favourite places to be and returning there. Our “safe” spot became a restaurant in the Piazza Navona, where we spent a couple of evenings drinking wine, eating dessert and chatting to the servers who came from all over the world. We got some great tips from them, as well as from two elderly science professors who entertained us during an entire meal (I actually just found one of their cards in my journal; he must have given it to me when we were chatting!). Piazza Navona was a lovely place for congregation, centered by the gorgeous Neptune fountain and with views on the Baroque church Sant'Agnese in Agone. The outskirts of the square are surrounded by restaurants and bars, and it took us a few not-so-great meals to pick our favourite (and even though I kept the cards from all of them I can’t remember the name of our favourite). Again though, we found that the food seemed to be less pleasing the more popular the area.
During those four days, we walked and walked, and ate, and walked some more. I finally got to see the Sistine Chapel and was in tears… The beauty and the amazing preservation of so much artwork! The Vatican is an interesting little place. For some reason I had always imagined a lot of priests running around in robes, but it was mainly full of clusters of tourists which shouldn’t really have come as much of a surprise. St Peter’s Basilica is stunning, colossal, and the atmosphere is unlike anywhere else that I have been… Kind of a cross between the hush of a cathedral and the drone of thousands of whispers with a back drop of deep and dark history. If I remember correctly the Pope (or it could have been a cardinal) was supposed to come out to speak that day, but we didn’t even try to stay. You can’t really avoid the crowds of pilgrims and tourists at the Vatican, and it’s always a struggle for me to push myself through these types of things to actually experience what I want to experience. The Sistine Chapel was worth it.
We walked around the Colosseum and the gardens, imagining sitting inside and watching gladiators battle it out until the bitter end. We found the Trevi Fountain and pushed through the crowds so that we could throw coins in and make a wish… I still remember the wish I made and am quite glad that it didn’t come true, although it has made me think about a lot of things and how different my life would have been from then onwards if it had come true. We strolled around Trastevere before making our way back to our trusted Piazza de Navano, explored Campo di Fiori and got drunk at an adorable bar called Jonathan’s Angels, ran around the streets jumping on people’s mopeds and on benches, laughing and singing. We ate pizza and pasta and gelato, drank many a bottle of wine and many an espresso. I put my hand in the Bocca della Verità, and was actually a little scared something might pop down and bite me, Indiana Jones style. I sat on the Spanish steps several times and dipped my fingers in every fountain we passed, making wishes everywhere. Rome was another revelation for me, like Barcelona a little later, a city of peace, of noise, of old and new, of fun and games and of a lot of reflection. I would love to go back again, ten years later, and revisit the same places and possibly find others that I missed the first time around.
Milan – Venice – Florence – Rome and back to Paris again, a little over a week of Italy. Ruins, churches, ancient cathedrals, God people and tourists, locals and local foreigners, old people, young people and everyone in between; tiny cars and mopeds, cheap, fast trains and wooden boats, pasta and more pasta; rain, sunshine and gloom, wine by the bottle, hundreds of espressos and a lot of walking. The Italy that I remember was a place of beauty, happiness, friendship and reflection.