Our Italian holidays started with a pleasant surprise – complimentary upgrade to the first class on Norwegian Airlines, only because our tickets happened to be standby because of an overbooked situation. Thank you, Norwegian!
The chic flight got us to Rome. It was our first time in Italy, thus we resorted to Daria’s recommendations (see Part 1). We decided to choose the central part of the country – Rome and Florence, – as our main destination. And hoping to enjoy some warm weather, we picked the picturesque Amalfi Coast, the town of Sorrento, as our last vacation spot.
Rome reminded me of a beautiful wreath, in which every corner, building, side-street, and square are braided into one whole masterpiece.
Do not rush to the museums and all the places of interests from a tourist guide map right away. Rome itself is a museum: ancient Roman empire columns on every block, churches, painted by the best artists of the Renaissance, and numerous statues that decorate buildings and bridges that have been created by world-renowned sculptors.
Rome is ideal for walking. Actually, walking was the fastest and most convenient way to get to most of the destinations, thanks to Roman non-drivable narrow streets and one-ways, and a modest subway system.
We had our first Italian meal in a really small restaurant that we spotted on a narrow side street, somewhere between Piazza Navona and Ponte Sant’Angelo. There are several general rules about how to find good food places in Rome (and Italy in general): find a street with less tourists, choose the smallest place with no wi-fi, and go for a place with a menu that has fewer options and lower prices. But most importantly, ask for a piece of advice from locals!
You cannot talk about Italian food without mentioning pasta. I ordered pasta every time we ate out. I realized that before coming to Italy, I actually never had real pasta!
In Italy, pasta has this very specific texture, perfect al dente; no matter how much I tried, I could never recreate it here in the US. Also, in comparison to Italian restaurants in the US, pasta dishes in Italy have fewer ingredients. Usually, it is a very simple dish, but very rich in taste, and every component adds subtly to general perfection.
I took my camera the next day and had a one-on-one date with Rome. I started my morning with exploring the beautiful Villa Borghese Gardens (an entrance to the park is free, but if you want to visit Borghese Gallery, buy tickets in advance as they sell out fast).
My next 40-minute route took me to Ponte Sant’Angelo, the most famous bridge in Rome built in 134 AD, which provides a photogenic vista of the Castel Sant’Angelo and leads to St. Peter’s Basilica of Vatican. There are ten angels on the bridge, created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and his students. Its history is very rich and somewhat bloody – google it!
Trastevere consists of a myriad of narrow cobbled streets with ancient houses,most of which are small restaurants, cafes, small shops, pubs, and such. Some restaurants are open very late, and you would see big crowds of people lining up near the closed doors. We ended up in one of those restaurants, Hostaria da Corrado at Via della Pelliccia, 39, managed by three excentric old guys. Even though the restaurant was empty when we entered the moment it was opened, no one hurried to sit us at the table right away and we had to wait;apparently all tables were reserved. People dining there were locals and regulars who did not have to look at the menu. There was a feeling they were not that enthusiastic to serve tourists, but it was exactly what we were looking for! For thirty minutes we were sitting in the corner, drooling over the smell of delicious home cooked dishes and fresh bread. But when we finally got our table, a carafe of red home wine and the simple, but delicious and authentic food, we felt we were in heaven!
A FEW MORE RECOMMENDATIONS:
- La Prosciutteria at Via della Panetteria, 34/A. The place is filled with tourists and expats from all over the world, be prepared to wait for your order for at least 30 minutes. But with a great wine selection and a fun international crowd, it is never boring.
- Augusto at Piazza de Renzi, 15. Provides traditional Roman, no-nonsense cuisine dishes served at shared tables. We did not go there, but the line in front of it one hour before opening was impressive. A small, a little secretive and cozy place where everyone wanted to get in.
- Ristorante 433 at Via del Governo Vecchio, 123 (out of Trastevere). It has a great variety of plates to choose from. My favorite was their Truffle pasta.
The original plan was to stay in Rome for two-three days, rent a car and drive to Venice through Tuscany, spend two days in Florence and enjoy the picturesque scenery of small towns and villages on the way. That plan deceased when we started looking for a car rental: we could not find a car with automatic transmission, and none of us could drive a stick shift. Additionally, my friend fell in love with Rome so much, that she just refused to go anywhere else. But I really wanted to see that pink sunset in Florence, the favorite city of my kindred people, so I tossed a few things in a small backpack and caught the morning train to Florence from Roma Termini.
Italy is ideal for traveling by train. Trains go to all major cities every 30-60 minutes, they are super fast and way cheaper than car rental with all the toll-way fees. By train it takes about an hour and a half to get to Florence from Rome. The price is around 40 Euros for a one-way ticket, and it does not matter if you buy it a few days in advance or 15 minutes before the departure. There are plenty of vending machines at train stations, selling tickets for two main rail companies – Italo and Trenitalia. Some of their trains go faster, some slower, some are cheaper and some are more expensive. Before buying a ticket, just compare the prices and you may save 5-10 Euros. Another useful thing to know, is that train companies’ web-sites have options to exchange tickets instantly without extra-charges.
I was stunned by the grandiosity and beauty of Piazza del Duomo and a breathtaking Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, with its exterior composed of white, green, and pink marble… On the way to catch a bus to Piazzale Michelangelo (the spot to watch pink sunset), I stopped at La Menagere at Via De’Ginori 8R. It is a wonderful concept restaurant/coffee-shop/flower-shop/home goods store. Even if you are not hungry, you still have to stop by there for a cup of coffee, or just get an inspiration from its allure and thoughtful design.
I crossed the Arno River through the legendary Ponte Vecchio bridge and walked along the riverbank to the bus stop. I waited and waited, anxiously noticing that the sun was setting down. I could not miss something I was longing to see, so I grabbed a cab, and 10 minutes later (less 7 Euros), I was enjoying the sunset light that bathed the whole city in a rose haze… Happy and satisfied, I went down back to the city center passing through the beautiful rose garden on the hill.
On the way back to the hotel, I stopped for an exquisite dinner at the Trattoria Za Za (24, Piazza del Mercato Centrale, 30). Even though I am not a big meat eater, I went for the most famous Florence dish, Steak Fiorentino, served with delicious truffle pasta. A glass of Tuscan Chianti was a perfect addition. By the way, if you ever decide to order steak Fiorentino in Florence, keep in mind that one portion is too big even for two people.
After grabbing my morning dose of caffeine at Caffe Mokarico at Mercato Centrale (I liked their outside sitting area), I went to Uffizi Gallery (book tickets online a few weeks in advance if you do not want to wait in long lines), one of the largest and best known art museums in the world, that holds the priceless works from the Italian Renaissance. I did not have too much time to spend there, just a few hours. However, the whole day would not be enough anyway; and even within a few hours the density of beauty and genius in that place made my senses numb. I would probably need another year for such mindful art exploration, but I only had a little more than an hour before my train was due back in Rome. So I strolled around the city, talked to market vendors, while being seduced to buy a leather weekend bag (Florence is a perfect place for shopping for handcrafted leather goods). It was extremely hard for me to say goodbye to this beautiful Tuscan city…
Our next stop was Sorrento. There is nothing more romantic for me than the hazy and cold winter sea with its empty beaches. And Sorrento, a small coastal town, facing the Bay of Naples, was a perfect choice for a romantic like myself. There should be a reason why the best poets of Romanticism, like George Byron, Percy Shelly, Walter Scott (as well as Charles Dickens, Harriet Becker Stowe, Leo Tolstoi, Federico Nietzsche, Maxim Gorky, etc) were Sorrento residents at certain times in their lives.
We took a train from Rome to Naples, and Google maps recommended that we should take a ferry from Naples. Apparently, there is a much easier way to get to Sorrento from the central Naples train station (there is a local Circumvesuviana rail line that departs directly from the train station and stops in Sorrento city center).
But honestly speaking, we do not regret choosing a more complicated route that involved crowded public transportation and navigating our suitcases though it. When we got off the ferry on the Sorrento coast and saw the beautiful town on top of the cliff and breathed in its thick, wet and warm Mediterranean air, we were overwhelmed with pure joy. We felt like we were dropped in front of the doors to Paradise. According to the map, we were a ten minutes walk away from our hotel. However, after a few minutes of walk we realized that the map was leading us to the city via the narrow staircase up the cliff. It was an impossible route for us, granted our suitcases, so we had to take a regular cobbled road (no sidewalk, no lights), which was winding up and up around the cliff. After we dragged our luggage in complete darkness, we laughed hysterically about our adventures when we finally got to our destination. We were completely mesmerized with how beautiful it was, drowning in fruitful lemon and orange trees.
We asked for a room with a sea view (another reason to travel out of season), dropped our stuff at the hotel, and went out for dinner. To be frank, we did not do our research and just picked a random small side street restaurant. We listened to Enrico Caruso’s (local to the region) “Torna a Surriento”, shared a huge and delicious seafood salad and enjoyed some heady limoncello.
Restaurants and shops are open pretty late in Sorrento, as it is a tourist town. But despite that, almost everything is closed in the afternoon, I assume, because of siesta. Locals usually work 7-8 months throughout the year in tourist-related businesses, and the rest of the time they spend with families, enjoy their lives and travel. No wonder all locals feel very blessed and lucky to live in Sorrento (they told us so!)
We woke up very the next day early with an ambitious plan to watch the sunrise from the shore, but unfortunately, the rain ruined our plans. Instead, we wandered the streets of the rainy morning Sorrento.
We went down to an empty beach, and despite the fact it was February, I took my boots off and soaked my feet in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
Time was flying. After some successful shopping and lunch with the most humorous and flirtatious servers, our cab driver (who looked more like a model from the pages of Vogue magazine), helped us with our luggage and took us to the local train station where we caught the Circumvesuviana train to Naples. If you take this line during heavy tourist season, be very careful as enterprising and clever pickpockets consider it their favorite work spot.
OUR ITALIAN HOLIDAYS CAME TO AN END. We came back to Rome later that night, caught another train to the airport, and the plane carried us away from the orange trees and sunny streets to cold and gloomy New York. Before going through the passport and quarantine control, we remembered about Sorrento oranges in our pockets; we peeled and ate them, juice running down our hands, and laughing happily right in the middle of busy JFK.
STORY & PHOTOGRAPHY – Nina Hazhala | Chicago, USA