Notes on Italy

Like most projects I undertake, I’ve fallen woefully behind with these updates; yet there is still so much to tell. So please, bear with me as I take you through our time in Italy — and sit tight for an upcoming post on Spain!

While we were looking forward to exploring a country of historic landmarks, famed foods, and breathtaking scenery, our time in Napoli turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. Honestly, it’s the first city we’ve truly disliked thus far. We did have a pleasant walk along the seafront on our first evening — stumbling upon a few castles, taking in some of the coastal views, and eating an acceptable (though far from mind-blowing) Italian meal — but the rest of our experiences there were considerably less pleasant. The streets were dirty, the drivers were ignorant, and shady characters seemed to abound. This was also the first time we encountered difficulties with the AirBnB apartment we’d rented. Because of these issues, we ended up cancelling our remaining three nights in the city to stay in the nearby town of Pompeii instead. After all was said and done, the only thing we were glad to have visited Naples for was the pizza: best tomato sauce we’ve ever tasted!

The alternative AirBnB we found in Pompeii turned out to be an infinitely better option than the apartment in Naples. Glad for the last-minute change of plans, we got to stay with an Italian family and enjoy the villa’s backyard pool with its beautiful views of Mount Vesuvius. From there, we visited the archaeological site of Pompeii, where the eruption of 79 AD wiped out the entirety of the ancient city. The vastness of the 160-acre site is astounding in itself; however, walking through it all in +40-degree heat was quite draining. Of note are the casts of bodies that were buried in the eruption, the shapes of their last moments preserved by the ash and run-off from Mount Vesuvius thousands of years ago. While notable, I did find the casts a little disturbing and preferred viewing the ancient ruins instead.

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Having met a Canadian-American couple who were also staying at the bed and breakfast in Pompeii, we were excited to accept their offer to drive us along the Amalfi coast, as that had been on Tyson’s to-do list while traveling Italy. What we didn’t realize was that the five of us (plus luggage!) would be squeezing into a ridiculously tiny Fiat 500 for the next three hours as we navigated just seventy kilometers of narrow and winding coastal road. Still, we talked and sang some 70’s rock together, stopping at several viewpoints along the way, which definitely allowed us to make the most of our squishy situation.

Passing by Positano and Sorrento, we stopped in Praiano with the hopes of finding a specific beach at which our friends had wanted to go for a swim. Of course, we ended up walking along the pavement in unyielding heat for an hour and a half before ever finding it, having parked the car in one of the only spots available along the way. We finally did locate the beach, though it should more appropriately be called a cove, quaintly nestled in the rock cliff and crowded as can be. Still, it was a relief to go for a quick dip and cool off before heading back on foot to the vehicle once more.

Though I feared for our lives on more than one occasion on those harrowing roads, we made it to the colourful town of Amalfi in one piece and ate a deliciously satisfying lunch of bruschetta and pizza before parting ways with our new friends. After a short exploration of the town, initially we were glad to catch the bus and rest our weary feet on the way back to our place in Pompeii — but of course, the journey back ended up being far from restful. The air conditioning on our bus was broken and water leaked from the roof onto passenger’s laps as we stewed in our seats, sweating from the 35-degree heat for an hour and a half until we arrived at the train station in Salerno.

From there, our train was delayed and eventually cancelled; and if it weren’t for about six kind Italian strangers who barely spoke a lick of English, we might have found ourselves stranded in some remote town along the Amalfi coast that night. While we waited for the train that never came, Karen bought a pack of popsicles that we shared with our Italian guardians to stave off our hunger for a while. Finally, a different train did arrive and we made it back to Pompeii in one piece. We collapsed into the pool after a long, hot, and tiring day, resolving to relax by the pool and take it much easier the next.

The locals kept telling us that this has been the hottest European summer in 30-odd years, and hot damn, did we believe it! Still, when in Rome, there’s no time to waste. Our first full day in this iconic city was spent at the Vatican. Walking into St. Peter’s Square felt a little surreal, but once we’d paid to skip the line (and then proceeded to wait in the “skip the line” line, but no matter), that feeling increased exponentially as we walked through treasure after treasure in the Vatican museums. It was so crowded that you were literally propelled through the grandiose hallways and rooms like herded cattle, which was a shame because there was so much that should’ve been stared at for hours rather than seen for seconds — but even those few seconds were enough to make an impact. There were ancient tapestries spanning metres; the ceilings were works of art; artifacts and carvings and statues were displayed at every turn; and while I could go on and on about everything inside, for the full effect it’s probably best to see it yourself. After the museums came the Sistine Chapel. For fifteen minutes we stood surrounded by this incredible work of history, in absolute awe of the masterpiece Michaelangelo had created. You really can’t help but feel moved in such a place.

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Next came Saint Peter’s Basilica itself, and what a wonder that was as well. Overall, the decor was not as ornate or as flashy as some of the other cathedrals we’d visited, but there was a definite presence about it that was somehow both sobering and uplifting. The ceiling was so far away that it felt as though there weren’t any ceiling at all. The interior’s length also felt endless, while in every alcove there were incredible works of art to look at, like Michaelangelo’s Pieta. In any case, it was a very poignant experience for us all, and in the evening we went for a long walk to a panoramic vista overlooking the city. There, we enjoyed a bottle of champagne and a beautiful sunset in celebration of the incredible time we’d had together.

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Everything else Rome had to offer came the following day as we walked from one highlight to the next, and the next, and the next. We wandered through the Piazza Venezia and the Piazza Navona; we had a laugh over a sadly-drained Trevi fountain (when it should have looked like this); we found ourselves standing in the beam of light streaming down through the Pantheon; we walked the very parapets of the infamous Colosseum; and we explored endless acres of the Roman Forum in the sweltering Roman heat. There’s really no way around it… Nothing can describe our time in Rome better than this: it was epic.

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While Rome was undeniably epic, Florence became a favourite of ours for so many different reasons. We arrived in the city on July 20th, where Tyson and I celebrated our second anniversary in the sunny streets. We passed by the absolutely breathtaking cathedral of St. Maria del Flore and walked the river path with colourful and boxy old buildings making a quaint picture on either side. Tyson and I also decided to have our caricatures drawn to commemorate the day before returning to the balcony of our apartment for a relaxing glass of rosé together. After the whirlwind touring we had done in the past few days, it was nice to simply put our feet up and enjoy each other’s company before starting all over again the very next morning.

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In a last-minute decision, we booked a one-day tour through Tuscany which promised an experience of the highlights of the region. Our first stop was the infamously leaning tower of Pisa. It goes without saying that we joined the legions of ridiculous-looking people who were all trying to stage their most creative ‘holding up’ or ‘pushing down’ Pisa pictures.


From there we went to San Gimignano, the Manhattan of the Middle Ages. Between the medieval towers wound cobbled streets that eventually led to a charming square where we sampled (reads: scarfed down six scoops of) gelato from Gelateria Dondoli, voted Best Gelato in the World. Though I would have liked to try every single one of the umpteenth different flavours they had to offer, we tried what we could in the short amount of time we had. Let me tell you, with flavours so unexpected (wine and grapefruit, blackberry and rosemary, orange saffron and honey, lemon passionfruit, and so on) and so delicious, their gelato was definitely deserving of the title.

We ate lunch at a winery in the Chianti countryside before proceeding to the beautiful medieval town of Siena, well-preserved both structurally and culturally. The town is divided into districts represented by various animals, each having a distinct coat of arms. Siena is also host to the bi-annual bareback horse race called Il Palio, which takes place directly in the town’s central square. While not perfectly circular by any means, sand is laid over the stone streets, and the horses (representing ten chosen districts) race around the makeshift track. As per tradition, even a riderless horse can win the race. (Wanna watch a cool featurette of the event? Click here!) We then went on to the cathedral, an incredible building featuring a brilliantly-decorated outer facade with an interior of striped marble and mosaic tile that was even more striking yet. As Siena was the last stop of our guided tour, Tyson bid farewell to the real-life rocket scientist friend he’d made (you know, the kind that work for NASA and send the shuttles to space — no big deal or anything), and we returned to Florence with the happy hearts of travelers well-satisfied.

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The next day, Karen set off on a guided scooter tour of the Chianti region. This sounded like a great idea, but since the tour was beyond our backpacker’s budget, Tyson and I decided to rent a scooter on our own instead. Fifty euros later, we found ourselves driving double on a classic Italian Vespa through the Tuscan countryside. In retrospect, we both agree that this was indeed the best fifty euros we’ve spent thus far on our journey. Admittedly, I was a nervous passenger despite Tyson’s aptitude and squealed around many a wobbling corner; and when we took a wrong turn and ended up on a major highway with the savagery of Italian traffic speeding all around us, I was positively terrified. Getting stuck in downtown Florence during rush hour was not my cup of tea, either — but for the most part, our five hours of scootering were spent on empty rural roads that wound through breathtaking hills of farmland and vineyards, where we stumbled upon a few small villages like Strada, Greve, Montefiorelle, and Panzano, which we stopped to explore along the way.

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Considering the fact that we only had about twelve hours to see Venice from the time of our arrival to the next morning when Karen would catch a flight back to Canada, we hurried to drop off our luggage and hopped on a bus that would bring us into the iconic old town. As anyone will tell you, once you deviate from the overcrowded “touristy” streets, you have a more authentic experience of the floating city. We walked the picturesque canals for hours, ducking in to rest our feet at a hotel bar, stopping in St. Mark’s Square to feed a flock of pigeons, and wandering as far as the army base before heading back to our AirBnB. There, we ordered pizza in a simple celebration of our time together. We said goodbye to Karen the next morning, the three of us having had a lovely journey about which I’m sure we’ll reminisce for years to come.

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Lugano, Switzerland
Tyson and I were then on our way to our next Workaway location in Grandola Ed Uniti on Lake Como — but first we stopped in the town of Como itself. To make a long story short, we found ourselves stranded without a place to stay until around 7PM, at which point we were just a little weary of trains, backpacks, and especially of waiting around. Still, we did end up having a nice walk through the lakeside park as well as a quick taste of the local nightlife in the midst of a summer festival.

The next day, however, was one to note: as close as we were to its border, we decided to spend a day in Switzerland. We took the train to Lugano and were immediately taken by its beautifully kept parks, impeccably clean streets, and eye-catching architecture all bordering the lovely Lake Lugano. While there were similarities between the two neighboring countries, you could immediately sense the differences as well. While we were quite taken with the town, we weren’t so keen about Swiss prices. A plain old meal deal at Burger King would have cost us well over twenty Canadian dollars! Still, we decided to roll out the bills and rent a small red paddle boat for one blissful hour on the lake. The only problem we ran into was that we hadn’t brought any bathing suits… So birthday suits it was, because after all, YOPBOALISO: you only paddle boat on a lake in Switzerland once!

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Though we didn’t yet know it, there was a happy surprise awaiting us at a later date when we had the opportunity to return to Lugano with our Workaway host to watch the fireworks that would celebrate National Swiss Day on August the 1st. Tyson and I were both as giddy as kids to have had this chance. Thus, nibbling at some delicious Swiss chocolate, we thoroughly enjoyed the brilliant lightshow that took place right over the lake where we’d swam only a week before.

Lake Como
And now, for our Workaway with Mark. Mark is an American-Italian retiree whose primary hobby is to own and restore boats. He is a straightforward and good-humored character and proved to be a clear and concise boss during our week-long stay. Our tasks included tending the plants in the communal square of Cardano, sweeping its cobbled streets, washing the dishes after meals, helping to clean and organize Mark’s workshop, and lastly to help with many odd jobs on Mark’s pontoon boat situated on Lake Como itself. For example, I was in charge of cutting, sewing, doweling, and installing bright pink curtains for the on-board bathroom; Tyson installed a wobble-proof table for the barbecue, which involved some sanding, drilling, and creative thinking to ensure the table’s stability. The only downside to the boat work was that we landlubbers did get a little seasick on Lake Como’s mild waters, for which we were teased good-naturedly.

On two separate occasions, Mark took us boating on the lake at dusk, where we were lucky enough to catch spectacular visions of the surrounding mountains, the Alps in the distance upon the horizon, and quaint towns smattered here and there along the hillsides. We jumped into the silky water, though I think I almost caused Mark to drown in laughter once — I attempted to dive off the boat, but it moved from under me as I pushed away and my dive became a rather creature-like face-first flop. Still, our night cruises on the lake were a definite highlight, especially since we got to float right past Villa del Balbianello — the exact location used for the Star Wars scene in which Anakin Skywalker gets married on its dramatic balcony. There were other villas of immaculate grandeur to see as well, like Richard Branson’s mansion and yet another Guinness family cottage (we had seen another of their properties in Ireland already). However, my favorite sight was the luminous sky as the sun set, the silhouettes of mountains mirrored in the lake’s smooth and dark surface.

During our free time, Tyson and I occupied ourselves outdoors. Right outside the village where we were staying, there was an incredible walking trail through the wilderness that led on Menaggio. We often took a stroll down this path, as there happened to be a dozen different wildberries we could pick along the way. The weather was still hot, though it wasn’t as unbearable as it had been in the big cities, and we were quite happy to enjoy our beautiful surroundings and each other’s company. On a couple of occasions, we walked all the way to Menaggio to explore the town, spend some time on the pebbled beaches, and savour a glass of prosecco while sitting lakeside. Another great adventure was had on our day off when we set off on a hike up the mountain right behind Mark’s house. There were a multitude of well-marked hiking trails to choose from, enough to occupy an avid hiker for weeks. We decided to do the four-hour trek up Monte di Madri. We passed a trout farm, a river with many small falls and scenic bridges, and a few quaint cottages along the way. What amazed us were the ancient stone ruins of houses that used to belong to shepherds and mills that were once farming villages of old. Admiring the forested scenery and rock formations before reaching the open meadow at the trail’s crest, we then descended through a tiny mountainside town called Barna and returned to Grandola ed Uniti for a delicious meal of mussels and pasta prepared by Mark himself.

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After a week had passed by much too quickly, it was time to leave our Italian Workaway and head to the next in Spain. It was hard to part from such a stunning area, but there was a surprise in store for us: the lovely city of Bergamo. The only reason we decided to stay there was because of its location next to the airport from which we would depart in two day’s time. What we didn’t expect was how much we would enjoy it. On our last full day in Italy, we spent our time exploring la città alta — the old city situated atop a hill. It was surrounded by high walls and scenic ramparts sporting views of green spaces, the Alps in the distance; the streets were clean and wide and winding; and there was incredibly fast, completely free wifi to use throughout the area, outdoors and all! As it’s become a habit of ours, we climbed to the top of a bell tower to overlook the city — and had our brains thoroughly jogged when the bell tolled directly in our faces!

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As always,
From my wandering heart to yours,

2 thoughts on “Notes on Italy

  1. Love to both of you! I’m looking forward to seeing you again, once you’re back in Canada (PS it’s cold!).
    If you fly through Edmonton, you should let us know…


    1. Love to you all as well! We are looking forward to being home again, even if it’s cold!
      We have a quick stop in Edmonton during our flight back, but unfortunately the changeover is less than an hour. We do want to make plans for a visit to Edmonton once we’re back and settled in again though. We miss you guys!


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