Monday, 15 June 2009

Backpacking Italy in 10 days

I have just returned from a ten-day backpacking tour of Italy and my trip was truly exceptional. I spent 3 days in Milan to meet old friends (I did a one year masters course at the Bocconi University), 2 in Venice, 2 in Florence and then another 2 in Rome.

Returning to Milan after 3 years was a nostalgic experience. With my old classmates, who had gathered in Milan for one of my friend’s birthday parties, I walked the same roads that we did before as students at SDA Bocconi. We ate at Anadima, one of our popular destinations for lunches, and had the customary coffee after lunch at the Friends bar. After nearly three years, I had my favourite coffee Marroccino, a small espresso coffee with chocolate and cream on top; I could take a flight to Milan just for a cup of this coffee. On Friday evening we went for an ‘apperitivo’ (one drink and all-you-can-eat for 8 Euros) in one of the popular bars. My friend's birthday party on Saturday was a huge success and it was nice to catch up with people I studied with, and also get to know other people from Milan.

Visiting Milan is incomplete without visiting the Duomo, a truly magnificent church and apparently the biggest Gothic structures in the world. I shopped at La Rinascente, the trademark shopping mall in Milan, and went to Via Montenapoleone, the famous fashion street. Navigli and Castello Sforzesco were other places I paid a visit to on one of the afternoons.

The first thing that took me by awe was the splendour and beauty of the Venetian masks. Tens of hundreds of little shops are lined on both sides of the roads from the main rail station to my hostel, each one selling unique and grand masks. While the most popular ones, I am guessing, would fall in the 30 to 50 Euro range, I was surprised to know that was a significant market for masks above 200 Euros as well. Murano glass is another pricy world-famous product of Venice - decorative flower vases around 10K. I didn’t even want to guess the prices of the humongous chandeliers hanging in fancy showrooms.

I would have serious doubts about someone who explorers Venice on foot and doesn’t get lost. Getting lost in Venice has a charm of itself, because you can accidently discover beautiful little corners tucked away within the city. Piazza San Marco, the main ‘square’ of the city, is much different from the rest of the city. I took the waterbus from one end of the Canal Grande all the way to the other (S. Marco Giardinetti to Piazzale Roma), and saw most of the attractions in the city as several are on the banks of the canal. The Gondula was a very attractive though an expensive proposition, so I left it to be experienced with someone special when I return to Venice.

I thought that the exteriors of the churches in Florence where much more impressive than those in Venice or Milan. I climbed up the 163 stairs to the dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria to get a view of the city, which was quite worth the effort I thought. The city is much cheaper than Milan or Venice for general shopping, so if you are planning an Italy tour, perhaps best to leave Florence till the end, so you can shop as much as you want and don’t have to worry about lugging it around. I went to the Ponte Vecchio, one of the most famous bridges in the world, the Academia Gallery (saw the famous statue of David by Michelangelo here), Uffizi Gallery, Church of Santa Croce and museum of Galileo of Palazzo Strozzi.

On the second day, I wet to Piazza Michelangelo, which is on the other side of the river Arno, and at a height good enough to get a view of all the attractions of the city. From there, I hiked to the fort of Belvadere built by the royal Medici family, which is atop another hill. It was almost a 3km uphill climb on a hot day in Florence. The Bardoli and Barnini gardens are at the same place, and you need to pay 10 Euros at each place to gain entry. I saved those for drinks in the night.
One cannot go to Italy and not mention Gelato (local for ice-cream). By the sixth day, I had had so much gelato; I had gelato coming out of my ears. I went to the best Gelato shop in town - Gelateria Perche no! The food is absolutely divine too (Of course, it's Italian!) – try local Diavola pizza and spaghetti carbonara for a true taste of Italy. Oh, and don’t forget the Spritz drink (similar to Pimms in the UK, and the Spanish Sangria, though more on the bitter side).

By the time I reached Rome, the last leg of my tour, I was totally exhausted. On my first day, I went to see the Colloseum and surrounding areas. It was scorching hot in Rome, and I had forgotten to take my hat, which was a big big mistake. I was so tired by the end of day, that I literally had to drag myself to the dinner table at my hostel. The hosts at the place were great, so we ended up going out for a small walk post dinner, which consisted of home made authentic lasagna, limonchello wine and topped off perfectly with Tiramisu.
Next day morning, I left for the Vatican City. Standing inside the Basilica of San Pietro is simply a larger than life experience. This church is the most magnificent building I have ever seen. Thankfully, I had to wait for only 40 minutes to get in (which is quite lucky because I had heard stories of 4.5 hours in the queue). Everyone just dropped their jaws as soon as they entered the church. The place commands immense respect and you cannot enter it with sleeveless shirts or in shorts (the guards are going to stop you at the door if you do). After visiting the tombs of the popes, I took a city sightseeing bus to avoid walking in the sun. I saw most attractions, and walked to those that I hadn't yet seen.

However, I have to mention that whilst I was really impressed by the city's architecture and history, I thought that Rome was dirty. I am sure the authorities can afford to keep the underground from smelling like a urine pot, especially given the sheer amount of revenues generated from tourists. Anyway, after returning to the Pope's Castle near the Vatican City, I called it a day and headed to my hostel to get my stuff. While 2 days is short to cover Rome entirely, I was getting too tired to stay there another day. I took a night train to Milan from where I had my flight back to London.

Post-vacation, I am a tad sunburnt, and my cuticles have started looking unkempt enough to demand a manicure. However, all of this was worth the excitement of discovering Italy - a country I had stayed for a year but never had the chance (or enough money, for that matter) to travel. It wasn’t all about the places - it was about people too - I met old friends and made new connections. This is a truly one of the most memorable experiences of my life.