Italy: the land of pasta and immense beauty–the people, the language, and the landscape. It’s no wonder the country is overrun by tourists. From the shimmering canals of Venice and the rolling amber hills of Tuscany, to the rugged cliffs of Positano and the picturesque streets of Sicily, Italy inspires even the most hardened tourists.
I visited Italy with my sister, Nicole, on our first trip to Europe. You know, that quintessential trip to Europe where you hit all the ‘must-sees’ or as many as you can cram into your itinerary. We did the unoriginal London-Paris-Venice-Florence-Rome itinerary, one that I’m sure has been repeated thousands of times. What was unoriginal (or maybe not!) about our trip was the time in which we hit all these world class cities. We traveled at a pace that could make us competitive contenders on the Amazing Race.
We arrive in Venice from an overnight train from Paris in the still of the early morning hours. We wander through the quiet streets, stopping only to take pictures or admire the many glass shops that had not yet opened for the day.
From a cafe, we watch the city come to life. Locals rush to church, their steps echo throughout the empty piazza, and shop keepers ready their stores for the day. We watch St. Mark’s Square wake from its slumber. It happens instantaneously. One minute pigeons strut with dominance and the next, they are flying overhead, creating waves of flight. Kids laugh in delight at having created such a spectacle. Tourists come out in throngs, taking pictures in hopes of capturing a Venice that is uniquely theirs. Something to share with friends back home, to show they had made it to Venice, and she had been theirs just for a minute.
We walk the streets, soak in the views, disorient ourselves in the narrow alleys, and then we leave.
Box checked. We had been to Venice.
Next stop: Florence.
Our train arrives in Florence in the afternoon. We only have a little over 24 hours so we know that we have to move quickly. Nicole and I get into an argument while trying to find our hotel. We are tired and carrying backpacks that are way too heavy. We huff along in silence as I try to make sense of the directions to the hotel from the train station.
By the time we find our hotel, no one is there to let us in (essentially an Airbnb before its time). We locate a pay phone to call our host and have to wait another 30 minutes for him to arrive. He greets us in the streets and unlocks large wooden doors that reveal a grand staircase that winds up two flights of stairs to our room. The place is magical with high ceilings and large windows that open to to the city streets, offering a view of the Duomo. Our stress from the last hour flows with the breeze out the window. We are in Florence and nothing is going to dampen our mood.
We find a restaurant with outdoor seating in the Piazza del Duomo and sit down to our first Italian meal. We talk and laugh and people watch over a bottle of red wine, bowls full of pasta, espresso, and tiramisu. We continue our merriment to a nearby club where we drink too much and stay out too late.
Sitting at an outdoor cafe the next morning, we nurse our headaches with strong espresso and flaky croissants. We warm ourselves in the hot Florentine sun and watch the stylish Italian cafe goers sip their espressos with such grace that I instantly feel disheveled and question my outfit choice for the day.
The bells toll, a magical sound that rings throughout the streets of Florence every hour but also serves as a reminder of the limited amount of time we have so we carry on. We leave the cafe and merge into the crowds in Piazza Della Signoria to see the many statues. We think we see the Statue of David, only to later learn that it was a replica. After lunch, we board our train to Rome.
By the time we arrive, we are exhausted and are not prepared for the heat or the crowds. Our backpacks are heavier because of the leather coats we ended up buying in our last hour in Florence, a rushed decision, but one that was helped along by a beautiful Italian designer.
We drop our backpacks off at our hotel and head out to explore. It’s a rough start. Men shout “ciao bella” in a taunting way that makes me feel uneasy. We hesitate at every street crossing for fear we will be run over by the aggressive scooter drivers. Rome and all of its graffiti harshly contrasts the romantic Florentine streets.
But then we see the Colosseum in the distance. It’s other-worldly, and I just want to get closer. My pace quickens, and I hear my sister yell, “Jen, watch where you’re going.” I stop and look back at her as a scooter driver honks and swerves around me.
But I’m unfazed. We stand there, almost stuck in our tracks, watching the traffic circle the Colosseum. “It’s amazing,” I mutter.
“It really is,” she replies.