Bella Italia

We have recently returned from spending 9 days traveling all over Italy.  This trip, which we lovingly refer to as our Italian Sampler, was both exhausting and really enjoyable and included beautiful sites, delicious food and lots of walking and driving.  This is going to be a long one guys so strap on your helmet, jump on your Vespa and away we go.

Day 1

Our first day was really mostly about driving.  We had to head through Belgium, Luxembourg, France and Switzerland before entering Italy.  We had snow in Belgium, France and Switzerland.  Driving through the Alps, the snow was actually coming down and some roads were closed due to the amount of snow.  Not exactly how you want your vacation in mid-April to begin.

Luckily, by the time we entered Italy, while the temperatures were chilly at our destination of Menaggio in the Lake Como region, it was sunny and snow-free.  When we arrived, we took a ferry from Menaggio to Bellagio.  It was really windy and the ferry had some decent waves to traverse, but the ride was quick and the views were quite lovely.

In Bellagio, we walked, or rather climbed, the streets past shops up to a main square with a church.

We continued walking around for a bit before catching the ferry back to Menaggio where we decided to get some dinner.  We began the meal with a local fried cheese with polenta and jam paired with a red house wine.  For the main meal, we had gnocchi with gorgonzola cheese sauce, ravioli with vegetables and a braised beef with polenta.  It was all very good.

Feeling quite tired and cold, we headed to our Air BnB.  We had to drive up a lot of winding roads in the dark and walk with our luggage through very narrow steep streets to get there, but when we arrived it was a very charming place with a rustic kitchen and cozy living room as well as many bedrooms.

Day 2

We woke very early for our drive to the next region and found that where we were staying was actually a very small old village which was very interesting.  And as we walked down to the car, we were treated to some terrific views of the sunrise over Lake Como while the church bells were ringing.

It was time to head on to Cinque Terre, more specifically, Manarola.  Upon arriving, we had to park at a lot and then walk the rest of the way into the town.  We began by walking the narrow streets on the side of the cliff to Billy’s Trattoria for a lunch overlooking the water.  The food was terrific.  We tried a local white wine with Caprese salad.  Then, we moved on to a local pesto dish made with trofie pasta which had potato and green beans in it.  To finish the meal, we had tiramisu along with biscotti which you dipped into Sciacchetra, a local sweet wine.  We also tried two digestifs- limoncello and grappa (the grappa we were not fans of).

After the amazing lunch, we walked down a few of the streets past some amazing views to catch the train to Riomaggiore.

There, we walked some of the streets (and by walked I once again mean climbed) to a church and castle.  The views were terrific, but we did meet a strange old man who ended up calling us ridiculous (always good to have a weird story from your travels)!

We made our way back to Manarola via the train and climbed up through the cliffside vineyard, stopped in a church and climbed back up the 10 minutes to the parking lot to retrieve our bag before heading to dinner.

While dinner was quite cold because it was out on a balcony overlooking the town and a bit of the sea, the atmosphere was nice.  All of the dishes were served on hand-painted plates, and they had some fun music playing including one of our son’s current favorite songs, Mambo Italiano.  We ordered an appetizer of black rice and veggies in a pea sauce-different but good and a gin with local herbs (really nice).  For the main course, we had a pizza with a local-style pesto and cheese, Margherita pizza and a pizza with buffalo mozzarella.  The pizzas were good, but the one pasta dish that was ordered with prawns was not, as the prawns were raw.  We had a local wine with the dinner, and we enjoyed the dessert of lemon cake and tiramisu along with limoncello.  After dinner, it was time to settle in for the night.

Day 3

It was a very early morning climb back up to the parking lot before leaving Cinque Terre behind for what we hoped would be the flatter Tuscany region.  On our way there, we breakfasted on some focaccia that we had purchased at a bakery (plain and with green olives).

Our first stop was in Pisa to see that famous leaning tower.  We only stayed about an hour but it was long enough to see the tower and the Campo dei Miracoli complex, Piazza dei Cavalieri (Knight’s Square) and Santa Maria della Spina along the river.

After our Pisa visit, we moved on to Florence.  Once we found a place to park, we walked into the center of the city to Santa Maria del Fioro (Duomo).  It was completely packed with tourists with a line snaking around the building, so we opted not to go in.

Likewise, the Basilica di San Lorenzo and the Capelle Medicee were also packed, so we just looked from the outside.

From there, we moved on to Palazzo Vecchio where we decided to sit in an outside café and have a cappuccino, hot chocolate and cannolis.   It was a nice moment to just watch the people and horse-drawn carriages around the square (and enjoy the sun).

There was a museum on the square which allowed you to walk into a couple of courtyards for free, so we took a quick look before passing by the Basilica Santa Croce.

We crossed the river and walked along it to Ponte Vecchio which was an interesting bridge with houses built onto it, but the bridge itself was packed with people looking at the many jewelry stores on the bridge.

We decided to go back to Palazzo Vecchio for lunch.  We sat outside across from a replica statue of David where we enjoyed a lunch of Pecorino Tuscano (Tuscan Pecorino cheeses including wine flavored, plain and spicy) with pears and honey, Ribolita (a soup made hearty with the bread mixed into it) and a pasta with pappardelle pasta, mushrooms, truffles and a cheese cream.  All very good.

Having had enough of the tourist-packed city, we left Florence behind and made our way to Siena which was a very cute city.  There was climbing involved, but at the top of the city, we went into a really wonderful cathedral which featured a lot of artwork on the walls and ceiling and a library with books that had been hand-painted by monks in the 14th and 15th centuries.

After the cathedral, we made our way to the main square which was very large and tons of people were sitting out on the cement sunning themselves and enjoying the fountain.

Next, we stopped at an Abby for a quick look before making our way back down to the original water supply fountain for the city.

We drove a bit further south to Val d’Orcia.  Along the way, we stopped at some viewpoints of the Tuscan landscape as well as at a small chapel before arriving at our destination of Montichello.

This was another very small village overlooking the Tuscan countryside.  It was really lovely.

We found a small place for dinner that felt like eating inside a cellar but cozier.  Our dinner began with a complimentary tomato, basil and cheese appetizer along with bread and a local olive oil (it must have been like liquid gold because they seriously gave each of us about ¼ teaspoon worth, if that).  Our first course was a mushroom and chestnut soup which we shared before enjoying our pastas of tagliatelle with artichoke and bottarga (fish roe) and pici cacio en pepe (this was a really nice pasta noodle with a pecorino cheese sauce and pepper).  We also had a local red wine and ended the meal with Crème Brulee and limoncello.  This was probably one of our favorite meals.

Day 4

We began our fourth day with a short drive into Montepulciano, a really cool old city.  Because we were there so early, it was very quiet as we hiked up the streets to the piazza and church, and we were treated to some amazing views of the clouds over the Tuscan landscape.

We stopped in a bakery and grabbed some pastries for the car (something like a small pistachio cannoli, a chocolate tart and a cream-filled croissant) before beginning our drive into Rome.

After arriving in Rome and dropping our bags, we walked to the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain before finding a streetside restaurant for lunch.

We had some lasagna, carbonara and cacio en pepe along with an Aperol Spritz and Italian beer.  It was not spectacular, but it wasn’t too bad.  We also tried a little pastry for dessert that was a kind of jam tart.

Our next stop was the Colosseum, but we walked by Campidoglio (designed by Michelangelo) and the Foro Romano on the way there.

At the Colosseum, we had tickets to go inside to the arena which provided some nice views but was quite busy.

After leaving the Colosseum, we entered the Foro Romano to have a look at the ancient ruins before stopping in several churches on our way to the Pantheon and the Piazza Navona.

Here, we selected another streetside restaurant to have Caprese, Carciofi alla Giudia (fried artichoke) and Carciofi alla Romana (an artichoke in a lemon sauce).  Our main meal consisted of a nice red wine with carbonara, gnocchi in a four-cheese sauce, mushroom fettucine and an oil with garlic and peppers pasta.  The dinner was fine, but the tiramisu for dessert was delicious as was the torta della Nonna (custard-style dessert) with limoncello.

After dinner, we decided to walk to Castel St. Angelo and back to the Foro Romano and Colosseum.  They were much quieter, and it was nice to see them by night as well.

As an added bonus, we saw a hedgehog walking around on a grassy hill.

Day 5

After some much-needed rest, we got up more slowly and sat at a street café to have some pastries and a latte macchiato and cappuccino.  We had croissants and a cream-filled pastry as well as some special pastries called sfogliatelle (a little shell-shaped pastry with a custard-like cream inside) and Babu con rum (a spongy pastry in a rum sauce).

After breakfast, it was time to head across the street to Bascillica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore.  It didn’t look much like a church from the outside, more like a government building.  Inside, it was full of gold and ornately decorated side rooms-very pretty.

From here, we made our way to the Capuchin Museum and Ossuary.  The first part of the museum was just artifacts and information about the Capuchin monks but the ossuary was really interesting.  We have been to ossuaries before, but this was really different in that the bones had been disassembled and, along with some full skeletons dressed as monks, used to make art communicating various messages.  I really wish I could have taken a picture, but it was not allowed.  I will say that if you have the chance to visit this spot in Rome, I would definitely recommend it as it’s a quick activity, costs little and is really unique.

After the ossuary, we made our way toward the Vatican and had lunch at a street restaurant near there.  We ordered some Italian beer and had the fried artichoke again, and this one was really good.  We also tried fiori di zucca fritti which is fried squash blossoms.  They were so good as they were also stuffed with a little cheese.  Our main plate was cacio en pepe, risotto with burrata cheese, pizza and bucatini (like spaghetti with a hole in the center) with a tomato sauce.  It was all really good, and the beautiful weather outside added to the enjoyment.

After lunch, we stopped for some seasalt caramel gelato on our way to the Vatican.

The Vatican was packed- I think my exact comment was that it was worse than Disneyland.  We made our way through the extensive and elaborate museum rooms filled with paintings and sculptures to the Sistine Chapel (sadly, no pictures allowed of the chapel).

After taking some time to view the chapel, we made our way back out of the complex and to St. Peter’s Basilica.  The line was seriously massive to get inside, so we opted to enjoy the view from the outside only.

Near the basilica, we stopped in a small shop for suppli and arancini (rice ball snack).  They were a bit too oily for us.

Hoping to leave the crowds of the Vatican behind, we walked (past Castel St. Angelo) back toward Trevi Fountain which was equally crowded.

We found a restaurant on a quiet side street and had a beer and some olives and puffed corn snack to kill some time until dinner.  We found a small restaurant that could seat us inside, and it was a good thing we found it when we did because, shortly after we arrived, a line formed outside and the inside was full.  And probably for good reason-the food was really nice.  We decided to start with the fried artichoke and squash blossoms again as well as Caprese salad.  To accompany everything, we had some Chianti.  The main dishes were black truffle pasta, carbonara, tomato gnocchi and a really delicious arancia (orange) ravioli.

After finishing, we walked back to Trevi Fountain to see it illuminated and stopped for gelato (this time I tried tiramisu flavor and arancia (orange) dark chocolate which I highly recommend).

Day 6

On our sixth day, we munched on some black olive and tomato focaccia on our early morning drive to Pompeii.

Pompeii is really cool (I had been before, but this was the first time for my husband and children).  The sheer size is overwhelming, and the level of preservation is amazing when you think about how old it is.

This time, we found our way to the brothel, and I have to say, I really enjoyed the well-preserved naughty pictures illustrating what probably took place there as well as the stone beds.  Let’s just say that some things stand the test of time (both figuratively and literally).

After several hours in Pompeii, we drove up the mountain to the Amalfi Coast area.  We arrived in the area too late for lunch which was a shame since we were all hungry.  We decided to begin the Path of the Gods, but, with nothing in our stomachs, we just couldn’t make it very far.  We decided to stop at a small café built on what must be someone’s house overlooking the sea.  The owner was selling lemon ice from local lemons, and it was really delicious.

After the quick stop, we decided to head back on the path to our car.  The path itself was enjoyable with lots of nice views and tons of lizards and some goats.

At this point, the need for actual food was too great and no dinner restaurants would open for hours, so we drove into a very small town square near the entry point for the path.  One of the restaurants on the square had some bread and pastries, so we grabbed some as well as a beer and an Aperol Spritz and sat for a bit.

Luckily, they also provided some olives and cracker snacks because we devoured them.  We walked around a tiny bit before finding a dinner place overlooking the water.  The dinner began with much promise as we had a local wine, Caprese and an assortment of cheeses which were all good.  Sadly, it went downhill from there as our carbonara, spaghetti with tomato and oil and lemon ravioli were not so great.  The fritto misto di fruit di mare (assortment of fried seafood) was ok as were the fried zucchini flowers.  The views were nice though, and the desserts of tiramisu and a lemon sponge cake were good.  We especially enjoyed the limoncello and the amaro del capo.

Our apartment was overlooking the coast but was very remote, so after dinner, we had to drive some dark winding roads to get there and then climb up some dark stairs to walk through a tiny path with plants growing over it.  Not the best, but the views over the water were really great, and it felt very secluded.

Day 7

We woke up to sit on our balcony overlooking the water and eat some Colomba (a special Italian Easter bread which was kind of orangey in taste and covered in chocolate).

After hiking back through the plant path to our car, we headed off for Arezzo.  Once we arrived, we began the afternoon by looking at the ruins of a Roman theater, walking around the old city and seeing things like churches, shops and the main square.

We decided to grab some gelato (the lemon flavor was quite nice) before heading up to the main cathedral, which was really nice, the palace and through a park to the remains of an old fortress.

After the park, we went to the main square and had a beer and Campari Spritz before heading to our apartment which was outside of the city on a farm.

We found a nearby restaurant for dinner where we had a house wine with some really good mushroom bruschetta and a pecorino bruschetta.  We tried mushroom and asparagus risotto, mushroom ravioli, gnocchi in a cheese sauce and a mixed seafood platter.  It was all pretty good as was the tiramisu, limoncello and amaro del capo.

At this point, exhaustion was really starting to set in, so we made our way back to our apartment and got to bed.

Day 8

Exhaustion being merely a way of existence now, we got up early and drove to Venice.  Upon arriving, things were pretty quiet, and we enjoyed walking through the small streets and canals.

We hired a gondola and spent some time on the small canals and a small piece of the Grand Canal.  We saw the Rialto Bridge as well as many historic homes before embarking on foot to St. Mark’s Square.

Along the way, we stopped in a few different squares with very interesting buildings.

St. Mark’s Square was packed- I thought the Vatican was bad, but this was insane.  We viewed the Basilica from the outside only as we were told the line to get in was an hour at least.

We did go into the Doge’s Palace where we viewed many state and judicial rooms as well as the armory and the prisons.

The rooms were very gaudy with lots of paintings, gold trim and heavy, dark wood.

The prison path took us past the Bridge of Sighs which we also viewed from the outside.

We took a few minutes to view the Grand Canal which was bustling.

We did a quick stop in the Correr Museum which had some nice ancient pieces, particularly sculptures, and some really cool old lampposts.

After leaving the museum, we stopped at a place for lunch where we had chichetti (different fried appetizers/small dishes).  We had the zucchini flowers, artichoke and mozzarella with anchovies on toast.  I also tried a Venetian Spritz which was nice.  Our main meal consisted of a tomato pasta, a seafood pasta, a pasta with artichokes and a local sausage and nero di seppia (cuttlefish ink pasta).

After lunch, we walked back out of the city, and the crowds were ridiculous.  It was a far cry from the quiet of the morning, so we were ready to head to Verona and some quieter areas.  That was a joke- if I thought that the Vatican was bad and St. Mark’s Square was worse, then I have no words for Verona.  It was a madhouse and completely chaotic, which was unfortunate because there were some really neat old buildings and architectural elements- you just couldn’t really see them.

While in Verona, we walked past the old amphitheater to Juliet’s house (being that Juliet was a fictional character, it’s not really her house but rather the house of a family that once did feud with another family in Verona).  Nonetheless, the line to get in was unbelievable and made the street even more packed.

Next, we headed to the main square which had an open-air market, many statues and a fountain and was lined with old buildings.

To escape the hoards, we walked down a side street to a tower and some very interesting raised tombs belonging to an old royal family of the city.

Down another side street was the former home of the other feuding family of the city, dubbed Romeo’s house.

We began walking back to our car at this point and had to walk down a street with wall-to-wall people.  Coming out of Covid era, this felt really weird.  After making it back to our car, we left Verona behind for Bergamo.

Luckily, it was much quieter.  We stopped at a place for dinner and since it was our last meal in Italy we decided to go all out with a local wine, bruschetta and fried polenta sticks.  For the main meal, we had cacio en pepe risotto, homemade pasta with Genoese pesto and a homemade pasta with tomatoes.  It was all very good.  The desserts were a bit of a disappointment, but, nonetheless, we had some tiramisu, tiramisu ice cream and a cannoli with linomcello and amaro del capo.

After dinner, we took the funicular up to the old city where we walked through the little streets to the old square with its tower and cathedral.

We happened upon an Easter service at the cathedral.  The priests were standing outside reciting some things and singing while the people in the church were in complete darkness.  Then the priests lit a huge candle and entered the church where other priests lit the candles of the churchgoers.  At the altar, some other large candles were lit and the whole church was illuminated.

The service continued, but as it was in Italian, we decided to leave and continue exploring the old city.  We saw some really nice artwork and architecture on the baptistery building next to the cathedral.

Then, we walked down to the old city gate where we had some great views of the city below.

The ride down was packed on the funicular- we were standing packed like sardines and at one point our daughter thought she might end up on the lap of the guy sitting next to her.  Definitely a weird and uncomfortable feeling after two years of avoiding being in close contact with others.

Day 9

As it was time to say arrivederci to Italy, this was a day full of driving.  The best part of the day was probably eating the sticky nut pastry and the traditional polenta pastry from Bergamo that we had purchased the night before.  It was a polenta cake outside with chocolate cream inside and an orange layer over the top.

Our drive was long crossing back through the Alps in Switzerland, crisscrossing from Germany to France, back into Luxembourg and Belgium before finally making it back to the Netherlands.  And just like that, the Italian Sampler was over.  While it was a tiring trip, and we covered a lot of ground and saw so many churches that I literally cannot tell them apart, it was really a good trip.  It was great to experience so many things together as a family and to explore many different regions.  I think everyone would be happy to go back to Italy, though, other than a weekend trip to see some museums that we wanted to see in Florence that were closed, I don’t think it will happen in the next few years.  But, for now, everyone is happy to have finally taken this trip that had been planned for two years ago.  And, if you made it this far, I hope that you enjoyed this whirlwind tour of Italy.  Until next time, ciao!

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