Il mio amore per l'Italia – Love of Italy. What’s not to love about Italy? The people, food, language, culture, arts, architecture and scenic countryside. It was our number one country of choice to immigrate to under the “Elective Residence Visa”. Join us on our two-week road trip as we explore Northern Italy and all it has to offer.
We had been to Italy before on a cruise where we explored some of Southern Italy in 2011. This time (2017), we decided to embark on a road trip through Northern Italy to really get to experience the sights, smells, sounds and flavors to the fullest. Nothing will integrate you quite as well as doing a road trip, something which I usually loath, but breaking it down into smaller bite size trips helps. We started our journey from Rome (in a Fiat 500 Abarth as one should) and headed to Livorno, then on to Florence via Pisa, then La Spezia, Milan, Venice, San Marino and Pescara before heading back to Rome.
Part of the Firenze (Florence) municipality, Livorno is located on the west coast of Italy and is best known for its shipping port, large beach promenade, famous for it chess board style paving and a popular meeting point for locals and tourists alike, cheap seafood and the Old Fortress. We used Livorno as a base from which to tour the surrounding areas including Pisa which was only 20km away. We arrived at our hotel quite late in the evening after our flight and found that most places were closed due to it being Christmas Eve. Having anticipated this, we decided to spoil ourselves a little and booked a two-night stay at the luxurious Grand Palazzo Hotel. Our thinking was that if you’re going to be stuck in a hotel with not much going on, it might as well be a good hotel. The breakfast buffet was Michelin star worthy and with not many guests in the hotel at that time, we literally had the entire buffet to ourselves.
There isn’t a person in the world that has not heard about the Leaning Tower of Pisa. If you are fortunate enough to visit this location, you cannot help taking the obligatory picture of trying to push the leaning tower back up straight (as we did). A half day at this location was enough to see the tower and cathedral. For an extra fee one can climb to the top of the tower. We also did a bit of exploring around the town center for shopping and lunch. Its definitely a recommended stop.
The jewel of Tuscany (Firenze) and the birthplace of Leonardo Da Vinci, it’s also our most beloved part of Italy. We stayed in the heart of the city in an old convent that had been converted into a boutique hotel called Casa Santo Nome Di Gesu . The most memorable part of our time in Florence was enjoying cheese, wine and biscuits in our room on a rainy afternoon while overlooking cathedral roof domes and listening to the bells chime. Sometimes the best memories cost you nothing. The other highlight of this beautiful city was seeing Michael Angelo’s “David”. The white marble sculpture is truly magnificent standing at 5.17m tall and almost appears to radiate light. We tried seeing Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”, but were unable to secure pre-booked tickets.
We would recommend no less than two days in Florence. The best way to see the city is by Hop on Hop Off bus. Get the two day pass and use it as a taxi.
Our next stop was La Spezia to see the famous Cinque Terre (five terraces). We stayed at the CDH My One Hotel in La Spezia due to its vicinity to Cinque Terre. The best way to start your tour of Cinque Terre is by train which starts at the La Spezia station and costing around €20 per adult for a day ticket. You will get off at the following 5 stations: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.
Just be sure to validate your ticket before boarding the train. An un-validated ticket will get you a hefty fine which we learned the hard way.
On a pleasant day and for the more adventurous, one can also take the train to the last stop and walk the Cinque Terre trail back. The mountain side walkway offers picturesque views and will take you around five hours (+/- 14km) excluding time spent in the villages exploring.
Milano is of course famous for its fashion outlets and we decided to take a little detour enroute to the Serravalle Designer Outlet to cash in on some post-Christmas sales. The complex is approximately an hour’s drive from Milan and is a conglomeration of designer outlets including Armani, Bvlgari, Burberry, Dolce & Gabbana, Fendi, Gucci, Moschino, Prada, Cavalli, Swarovski and Versace which offer up to 70% off regular prices.
In Milan, we visited the Milan Duomo Cathedral Square and of course strolled through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. The square was alive with people and street buskers, an ideal photo opportunity. The cathedral is also a must see including the rooftop tour. Another popular landmark is the La Scala Opera House. If you’re spending the night in Milan, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to see a performance at arguably the world’s most famous opera house.
We visited Milan again in 2022 when we went to the Rolling Stones concert and found that prices had increased significantly. This was post COVID and the economy (like most other countries) had suffered a hugely. We used the “Aperol Spritz Index” to compare costs in the various regions. On this trip in 2017 we were paying an average of €5 for a spritz and on our 2022 visit we were paying between €10 and €12.
Interesting tip: If you sit down to have an espresso (for example) it will cost you double than it would if you were standing at the coffee bar counter!
The best way to see all that Milan has to offer is with a 1 day Hop on Hop Off bus ticket.
This was also our second time visiting “Venizia”. The first time was back in 2011 on a motorhome trip. Navigating the maize of walkways and canals was a nightmare back then, your only reference was a tourist map of streets and landmarks. However on our second visit we found clearly marked direction arrows pointing you to the closest landmark. The municipality now invested in a very efficient canal ferry system, very similar to most countries metro systems.
Our schedule was planned so that we would be in Venice for New Year. We parked the car on the mainland and opted to fork out a little more to be close to St Mark’s Square where all the “action” would be. Accommodation at that time of year is expensive and all we could get was a 3x2m room where we could literally touch the walls on each side, but we were about 150 meters from St Marks Square. The New Year’s Eve celebrations was a bit of a let-down. People gathered at the water’s edge for a firework display and then made their way home.
The next day after a cappuccino and cannoli we were approached by a man offering a free private boat ride to Murano Island (famous for its hand-crafted glass creations). We were both waiting for the “hook”, but the gentleman assured us there was no catch or obligation to buy anything once there, so we hoped on board and were whisked over to the island James Bond style.
Being New Year’s Day and quite early in the morning, we were the only tourists there which made the glass blowing demonstration a bit awkward. After the demonstration we were given a private tour. Room after room that seemed to never end. The pieces were magnificent artworks of grandiose chandeliers, vases, bowls, sculptures and jewelry. If you can imagine it, they can blow it. The prices however would make you choke. The price for a frugal vase was equivalent to 4 months’ salary, so we politely made our exit to find out what the “hook” was. If you don’t buy anything you make your own way back to Venice. Luckily, we had pre-purchased single use water ferry tickets the day before and there was a boat within the hour to take us back.
Venice is an amazing city with much to see. Rialto Bridge, St Mark’s Square, Murano Island and of course one must do a gondola ride through the canals.
After sightseeing all day, we enjoyed an Aperol Spritz or two in the evenings along with complimentary olives and crisps at a little bar close to the hotel.
Venice sees over 20 million tourists a year, with a high of 120 000 per day in peak season. So it would be best to avoid these busy times and limit your visit to a maximum of two days.
Rimini & Pescara
Heading back to Rome was long haul, so we decided to add stops in Rimini and Pescara to break the journey. The east coast of Italy is vast with long stretches of beach and what struck me most was the amount of abandoned hotel buildings. It was astonishing to see hotel and apartment buildings stand vacant and derelict. We just wanted to jump in and renovate these building that seemingly (to us) offered huge potential.
In Rimini we stayed at Hotel Kursaal right on the beach offering amazing views. The weather was not great so we mostly used this as a refresher stop. There are however tourist attractions like the Guaita fortress and historic old town.
On route to Rimini, we visited San Marino, which is in fact not part of Italy, but rather owned by The Vatican.
Pescara is a small coastal town and with the weather still gloomy and us tired from driving most of the day, we headed straight to our roof top accommodation, Pescara House located on the beach with amazing views. It was self-catering so we decided to cook our own dinner after a visit to the local supermarket. Traveling through Italy you will soon notice how much money you spend on going to the toilet. At €1 per visit, I was spending up to €8 a day, which is why I’m amazed that for €5 we could buy a liter of decent red wine, arrabiata pasta sauce and tortellini. Go figure! We enjoyed our home cooked dinner watching rain clouds rolling in over a turbulent sea.
Rome - Italy
As they say, “All roads lead to Rome” and with so much to do in this amazing city we recommend a minimum of two days. A two day Hop on Hop off pass is the best way to get to see everything. From the Colosseum, the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican, St Peter’s Basilica, the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain. We went to the Vatican but the queue to see the Sistine Chapel was just ridiculous, even for winter, so we opted to only see St Peter’s Basilica.
In season the queues to most places can be can be hectic, so it’s advisable to splash out a little extra and pre-book your “skip the line” tickets. Afterall, who wants to spend the majority of their vacation standing in queues?
We stayed at the Villa San Lorenzo Maria Hotel which was ideally located close to a metro and offered an authentic styled room and free parking. There was also a great breakfast, but the surrounding area looked a bit dodgy, but don’t be put off by that.
We just LOVE Italy! Our wish for every time that we tossed a coin into Trevi Fountain was to return.
In the words of the composer Guiseppe Verdi, “You may have the world if I may have Italy”.
Italy is not a country you visit once.