- Bathrooms- you have to pay to use them, toilet paper is a rarity, and so are toilet seats and hand soap.
- Mopeds- women ride them in heels, it is acceptable for women to drive men around, and for two men to share one.
- Gelaterias- gelato is a staple food, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that senza glutine (gluten-free) cones are common and easy to find.
- Opulence- the net worth of Vatican City and St. Mark’s square, as beautiful as they are, could probably feed and house a small African country.
Hop on a double decker tour bus and drive by all the typical sights (colosseum, Vatican, Roman Forum, etc). Don’t forget to hop off at the fountain of Treve- a gorgeous fountain built in the early 1700s of Neptune’s chariot being led into the sea by sea horses and throw in a coin to ensure your return to Rome. The fountain receives about 3,000 Euro per day in this fashion! Climb down the Spanish steps for some good photos of classic roman scenes.
Start off at the colosseum, where you can roam through the stadium trying to imagine a time when gladiators stood there. Surprisingly, gladiators didn’t always fight to the death, but rather the battles were more for show and many of them eventually gained there freedom. Then head over to the Palatino to see the ancient ruins where legend has it that Rome was founded and later housed many Roman emperors. The palace used to be covered in marble but it was “borrowed” and taken to the vatican, which seems to be a reoccurring theme in many of Rome’s historical architectural sights. From the gardens of the Palatino, you’ll have a great view of the Roman Forum.
Make a pit stop for gelato at Circo Massimo-the oldest ancient Roman chariot racing stadium, on your way to St. Peter’s square.
At St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest and wealthiest church in Rome, you can see the Pieta (Michelangelo’s statue of Mary holding the dead body of Jesus). If you’re in shape, you’ll definitely want to climb to the top of the dome and from there to the Copula (29 meters high) and its only an extra 320 steps through an extremely narrow and slanted spiral staircase-but the view at the top is worth the effort! Then head over to the Pantheon (originally a pagan temple, now converted to a christian church), to see the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. The diameter of the dome is 43.3 meters and is so big that its dificult to get the whole thing in one picture! Afterwards eat dinner at a cafe in Piazza Navona, a huge plaza full of extravagant fountains, artists, and musicians. Depending on your interest in Catholicism, art, and history plan your trip to the vatican museum with a few hours of buffer time (for the lengthy line and browsing the corridors). Or you can always do it the way I did and run through to get to the Capella Sistina (Sistine Chapel) to see Michelangleo’s ceiling frescoes. They are breathtakingly beautiful, but be careful if you try to sneak a picture the guards will yell “silence! no pictures!” and even try to confiscate your camera!
If you have time, spend the day touring Naples. Again a simple way to get transport to and from each sight is to hop on a double decker sightseeing tour and drive around the city. It’s worth hopping off at castle Nuovo, a 13th century castle complete with a moat. Then head to Museo Archeologico Nazionale, to see ancient artifacts including several statues that were excavated from Pompeii. Also slightly less known, but worth a visit is the underground aqueduct tunnel tour at Napoli Sotterranea. The tour takes you 40 meters underground where you explore caves and extremely narrow tunnels by candlelight that were originally created by greeks to channel water from Mt. Vesuvius.
Head to the Amalfi coast and spend the night in Maiori. It is quite the adventure to get there on the winding narrow roads that are on the edge of cliffs the whole way, with nothing but ocean at the bottom taunting you. Take a bus to Ravello a quaint town with great views of the coast, where you can visit a medieval village. The views of the coast are unbelievably beautiful and you can’t quite tell where the sky starts and the sea ends.
Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius
Take a guided tour to Mt. Vesuvius, the only active volcano in Europe, and Pompeii an ancient town at the base! Pompeii is famous for the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD that covered the town in ash preserving much of the city which was excavated in the 1700s. Many of the ruins which outline a huge ancient city that was surprisingly advanced are still in good condition and are in there original structure. Not only are the buildings and columns in place, the ash or pumice preserved many bodies in their final positions and a few are on display there! The city also had a brothel complete with beds made of stone and pictures on the walls of sex positions for the clients to choose between. Oh and in case you were wondering how people found the brothel, throughout the city there are pictures of penises pointing them in the right direction.
Afterwards, hike up to the top of Mt. Vesuvius where you can see the steam seeping out of the giant crater. Cross your fingers the volcano doesn’t erupt while you’re on it! Other things to do include a visit to a cameo factory, where you will see a Cameo Master hard at work chiseling out a picture of a women on a seashell. It takes 5 years of school for an apprentice to become a cameo master, and you really can see the difference in the quality of their work, but if you can’t, it should be abundantly clear by the difference in the price of the jewelry.
Head to Paestum- an Ancient Greek city dating back to the 6th century complete with remains of three greek temples that are still in great condition! Interestingly enough, the city was peacefully taken over by the Romans in 273 BC. The temples are fascinating, even when the rest of the city and surrounding areas have been destroyed by earthquakes and other natural disasters, the temples still stand. Another interesting thing about the Ancient Greeks at Paestum is that they never had slaves, and all their architecture was built in a collective effort unlike many other ancient civilizations.
Depending on where you’re coming from, you can head to Venice from Salerno. There you can enjoy some gelato on a barge accompanied by local fisherman and the sunset while you wait for your night train to Venice. It’s relatively inexpensive for a train cabin with bunk beds, and an overnight train will save you money on a hostel, and besides the experience will be an adventure in itself. Keep in mind the cabins sleep 4, so be cautious of where you put your belongings.
If you arrive by train around sunrise in Venice, nothing in the world will compare to the overwhelming sensation of your first breathtaking peak of the historical floating city while it’s still asleep. For breakfast you can eat some fresh fruit from the local markets and sip on a cappuccino from a cafe where you can people watch as you see the city come to life.
After you’ve sampled the fresh food and coffee, buy a day pass and hop on the ferry to Piazza San Marco or St. Mark’s Square, where you’ll get lost in a plethora of pigeons. Then walk through the Basilica di San Marco and try not to be overwhelmed by the glow of the golden roofs trimmed with shiny mosaics inside. For another small fee, you can see the Pala d’Oro, which is basically a large painting of biblical figures entirely studded with expensive jewels. Oh and St. Mark’s sarcophagus is there too! Then head next door to Palazzo Ducale, the Doge’s palace (still not sure who that is) and a mansion that housed the Venetian government for several centuries.
The Jewish ghetto is also worth a visit, which sadly still needs to be guarded to protect the Jewish families that live there.
After traveling back in time to the renaissance era through several old churches, and somewhere in between walks through the alleys and streets freckled with venetian glass shops and over the bridges that make up the labyrinth that is Venice, you will inevitably fall in love with the place!
Overall Italy is a blur of beautiful churches, mosaics/ frescoes, statues, scenery, sunsets/ sunrises, people with lovely accents, wine, and lots and lots of gelato.