Some people don’t like going to Italy. But then some people don’t like washing their hands after going to the toilet and we don’t trust them either do we? What’s wrong with Italy? Yes it’s full of Italian rantiness, yes it is difficult to get something done quickly and yes they do make you pay twice for train tickets (compulsory seat reservations that are not included in the ticket price? That makes no sense guys, just FYI). But it is also full of great wine, Roman architecture, art and fashion that’s so fashionable that if you understand it then you can’t afford it.
But I love Italy. A lot. I love the food, the culture, the language, the wome… the food and pretty much everything else. So making a list of all the places we needed an excuse to see and all the things we wanted to do on the next leg of our #TwoMenEUTour wasn’t hard but fitting them all in to the few days we had was the tricky bit. But as you will see, we did our best! Unlike our previous trips to Brussels or Ireland, we took a bit more time in Italy traveling down on the overnight train from Vienna in Austria to Florence, then on to Pisa, down to Rome, over to Pompeii and then back to Rome to fly home.
We met some amazing people, got robbed, experienced a thunderstorm of biblical proportions and still managed to come home eager to return as soon as humanly possible (2MenEUTour travel budget allowing!). We even managed to arrive home with almost all of our dignity still intact. And that, for those of you who have the pleasure of knowing Mrs. P, The Child and I, is quite some achievement let me tell you. So strap yourselves in because this might end up being a long one.
The night train from Vienna to Florence is a genius plan. OK, so it won’t be for everyone but for those of you who are genuinely intrigued by the prospect of sleeping on a train as it rocks it’s way smoothly through the alpine border and down into the Italian heartland, I can thoroughly recommend that you do it at least once. There are multiple price points ranging from chair only, through sharing bunks and your own lockable rooms, although the bathrooms are all shared. If you try to use the EURail like we did, you’ll need to pay the mandatory reservation fee as well, so don’t get caught out.
We arrived in Florence at dawn and caught a taxi to the Piazzale Michalanelo. At this time of the morning, the place is deserted but just wait around for another hour and it’s spewing sightseers, tat stalls and buskers out of the central square and into all the nearby streets. Make the effort though and the view is the only place to really soak up the whole skyline of Florence in one go. The old city wall to the west, the Arnolfo Tower of the Palazzo Vecchio and across the river to the Uffizi, it’s truly unforgettable. You’ll need a serious reward if you’ve managed to achieve the trip at this hour and believe me, you’ll get it in spades watching the sunrise over this beautiful city.
The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower, better known as Il Duomo di Firenze, dominates the centre of Florence and as soon as you get there you’ll see why. It’s an incredible building and once you climb to the lantern itself, it offers the highest view over central Florence. However, if like us you are on a tight time frame, you should book in advance because the sheer volume of tourists piling up those stairs means that you can queue for hours if you’re not careful. If you don’t manage to get tickets, then you might be luckier with the next door bell tower which not only gives you just as good a view of the city but also a good look at the Duomo itself.
Then you have the Uffizi and Accadamia. The Uffizi is home to the world’s greatest collection of Renaissance art. You, like us, can pick your way around some of the greatest paintings and sculptures that the world has ever known and feel very pleased with yourself for being uncharacteristically cultured while you’re doing it. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and the Leanardo Di Vinci exhibition are two unmissable features but you can waste a day here as an absolute minimum. Then, up the road is the Accadamia. Again, remember to book your ticket before you arrive because otherwise you’ll end up waiting on the street for hours. Standing proudly in the centre of the building is Michelangelo’s David. I’ve never really had a desire to look at naked men for long periods of time in the past (Mrs P. mentions that she’s never had that problem), but I’m happy to make an exception for David. David is spectacular. It is something that can’t be easily described but despite the tourists bustling around the room and the snap flash of selfies in every direction, David has an overwhelming presence that I’m so glad I got to experience. This is one of those memories that will stay with me forever. Go, just go.
I’ll be honest with you, there isn’t much going on in Pisa. I mean apart from the rather obvious wonky tower. It’s lovely and all, but once I’d ticked it off my bucket list, actually the best thing I remember about the place was the dinner we had at Tora Tora in the nearby Piazza Chiara Gambacorti. The meal was a giant among equals and considering how much I love me a plate of pasta, that is not a small achievement. It’s tricky to seek out this square but if you do manage it you’ll be richly rewarded.
Rome and the Vatican City
What can I say about Rome? The Roman Forum, the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the Vatican City and more, and more and more. There is so much to see that I simply can’t do the place justice in a few poorly chosen words here on this blog. Here are just a few examples of places that should you have the lucky opportunity to spend some time in Rome then maybe you might enjoy half as much as we did.
Central Rome is a city that you can walk across perfectly well and you will uncover so many gems (as well as numerous opportunities for locals to fleece an unwary traveller of their cash) should you wish to do so. However, for us Google maps proved indispensable with bus timetables providing almost 100% accuracy in guiding us across the city. I’m sure there are other ways and means to get that information but we found none so easily available to the average traveller as Google maps. TOP TIP ALERT: We visited the Colosseum and the Roman Forum on the first Sunday of August at which time entry was free. That’s worth saying again, you can gain entry to the the 25 biggest attractions in the city, for free, on the first Sunday of every month! Make sure you get there early and ignore the ticket touts persuasive talk of 2 hour plus queues (in reality we waited 15 mins) because they will try anything to squeeze every single penny they can out of you.
Then there is the Vatican City. If you can put aside a thousand years of religious pretexts for the indiscriminate oppression, persecution and torture of various minorities throughout the ages, there is no denying that the micro city-state is an amazing example of human achievement. As you wander through the opulent halls, you can marvel at the enormous paintings, the even bigger statues and even the odd Egyptian mummy! In truth, if there is one thing you can’t accuse the Vatican of being, it’s understated but as we were funnelled through the Sistine Chapel along with the million other people all looking for spiritual enlightenment/a photo of the most famous painting of all time, I decided that that there was probably better divine connection to be found somewhere less… profitable.
Naples and Pompeii
To get to Pompeii on the train, you have to go through Naples. If you do, and you just happen to meet the bastard who stole my wallet while we were there, do me a favour and smack him one in the face for me. In fairness, I can’t blame him entirely. As Mrs P, who didn’t even try to pull any punches in pointing out; if I would keep my wallet sticking out of an open pocket in my shorts whilst looking as much like a tourist as is possible to do so, then who was the true idiotic, cretinous, moronic, imbecile who can’t be trusted with anything even remotely important? (This is not what she actually said, but I think you get the direction she was going in).
Naples does have one redeeming feature however, as the home of the pizza. There are many stories but sources on the internet agree that Antica Pizzeria da Michele invented the bread frisbee that would soon take over the world. When we got there the queue stretched out of the door and down the street. Talking to the assembled throng it seemed like this was a daily occurrence and so regular that the shop across the street picks up a bit of extra cash by selling beer to people while they wait the 50 minutes for a table or takeaway. But was it worth it? Well, it was pretty good and no-one would turn it away if it was offered but the Naples Style has been so successfully replicated that it would be hard to tell the difference from any other thin crusted, chewy doughed, high quality, tastes-so-much-better-when-you-are-on-holiday pizza.
Pompeii is amazing – truly an astonishing way to spend the day. It’s easy to get to on the train out of Rome and when you get there, you’ll be rewarded with an experience that really puts some perspective on life. The streets, buildings, paintings and even the people and animals are all still there after thousands of years. All of what was the pinnacle of modern life of the time was snuffed out in moments and it’s a remarkable and humbling place to visit. On the day of our visit both Mrs P and I were very excited. Pompeii is one of those places on the list of ‘things to see before we die’, then the heavens opened and it rained like you wouldn’t believe. Dumpertruck-fulls of rain, thunder and lightning sent from what felt like the hand of Jupiter himself came sheeting down to drench us in disappointment. Which all came as a surprise to the old man waiting for the same bus as us as he commented that they hadn’t had a drop for the last 6 months. That made us feel so much better.
But were we daunted? Not a chance, perhaps we didn’t manage to get up to see Mount Vesuvius up close but that just means we’ll be back Italy, and while we’re at it hopefully meet up with Andy once again. This man met us at the train station and drove us up to Piazzale Michalanelo at silly o’clock in the morning. We learned all about his kids (he has two, a boy and a girl), his future (he wants to retire in Florence) and just how much he loves his home city (a lot). But all we wanted to know was what did he think about Brexit? Well, much like many other people we’ve encountered on this part of the #2MenEUTour, to be honest he couldn’t give much of a monkeys. In the brief time we had together, Andy pondered on what Brexit meant for Italy and for him but eventually concluded that it probably didn’t really matter. He felt that the people who voted for Brexit were quite Italian in their desire to protect their way of life. Why wouldn’t they want to defend their culture from disappearing? However, of course culture changes all the time and perhaps the best way to protect the traditions and institutions of Britain might not be to completely disconnect from mainland Europe. But the confidence that Andy has in the Politicians to make the right choices was reassuring, he knows that at the end of the day, things will probably be OK. Andy, we’re not sure why but your blind conviction of an encouraging end result is just the kind of positive outcome we need, regardless of the rights or wrongs of the initial choice.