Having spent a few days in a rather quiet Milan for a summer city break, we were off to the Italian Lakes for the second part of our trip.
Not having a car, we had found ourselves quite tied down with where we could get to in the region using just public transport. Rather than having to work out how to get ourselves and our luggage to a resort by boat, we had taken a friend’s advice to visit Sirmione, a resort town on the southern banks of Lake Garda.
From Milan, we caught a regional train eastbound to Desenzano del Garda. From here, we planned on catching a bus to Sirmione then find our way to our hotel once in the town but after departing our train to a deserted station, we couldn’t find any information on the buses. Deciding to go with our backup option of a taxi also proved more difficult than we expected it to be as none were around to meet the train and there was no one around to ask! Finding a payphone, we managed to call a taxi service and get someone to understand us and finally, a good half hour or more later, we were on our way.
Our problems getting to our destination didn’t stop there though. Sirmione is at the tip of a peninsula and there is one road in and one road out of the town. With it being August, peak tourist season, and a Friday afternoon, it seemed the whole of Italy was heading that way and what should have been a 15-20 minute journey, took over an hour as we sat in a long line of traffic leading up to the town gates!
By the time we finally arrived at our hotel, we were definitely ready for a relaxing few days and were glad we had upped our budget a bit to stay in a nice 4* hotel. Once settled in our room, we wandered into town, finding a small pizzeria for dinner and watching the sun set over the lake before heading back to our hotel for drinks at the bar.
The next day we planned to spend exploring Sirmione a bit more so after breakfast sat out on the hotel’s sunny veranda, we once walked down to the town’s centre. After familiarising ourselves with the small town’s layout, we made our way to the lakeside.
It was a beautiful, sunny day and we decided to take a boat tour out on the lake around Sirmione. The views across the lake, of Sirmione Castle jutting out from the town and of the mountains in the distance were really pretty and it was interesting to find out a bit more about the area we were staying in.
We spent the rest of the morning in Sirmione, sitting out on the shingle beaches leading down to the lake’s edge, wandering along the lakeside paths, looking around the bustling town, sat out at the cafes and bars and enjoying gelato before returning to our hotel in the afternoon and relaxing by the pool and cooling off with a dip.
That evening, we took a stroll back into town for dinner, first walking along to Sirmione Castle which we paid the small entry fee to go and explore. The ticket price was more than worth it for the pretty views over Sirmione and Lake Garda.
The next day, we caught the Sirmione land train to the Grottoes of Cattulus, the ruins of an ancient Roman Villa.
The entrance to the Grottoes was on a hill top and in the heat we were glad of the land train to take us there. There were pretty views over the lake from the top and after our visit, we walked back down the hill into town.
While Sirmione was a lovely place, there is not a lot to do outside of relaxing by the lake so we decided to catch a bat across the lake to the town of Desenzano del Garda.
Arriving around lunch time, we found somewhere in the main square to eat before spending some time wandering around then catching the boat back to Sirmione that evening.
We had one final day left of our trip and with the overcast weather forecast, we decided to use the day to take a trip out to the city of Verona. Enquiring at our hotel, we pre-booked tickets for the bus the day before then walked down to the pick up point the next morning.
It took just over an hour to reach the city of Verona and we were dropped by the city gates. The weather there was much better than what we had left behind in Sirmione and we had a lovely day exploring the city in the sunshine.
Venice was an Italian city I’d been curious about visiting for a while having heard mixed reviews about it from various friends. After spending some time in Tuscany visiting Florence and some of its nearby cities, we had caught the train north for a few nights in Bologna, a city we had found a nice contrast being less touristy and more authentically Italian and we were now travelling to the last city on our Italian adventure, Venice.
Arriving into the city by train, we had not thought at all about how we were going to find our way to our hotel. Normally, if the hotel wasn’t close to the station or easily accessible by public transport, we’d hop in a taxi to take us there and as we were both travelling with hefty luggage, this would have been the ideal situation today. But, of course, there’s no traffic allowed in Venice and public transport in by the waterways only.
After seeking advice from the information office at the station, we realised we would need to take a water taxi along the Grand Canal to the stop closest our hotel and then walk the rest of the way. The first part of this was relatively easy. We were quickly able to purchase water taxi tickets and were soon loading ourselves and our luggage onto a boat.
The stops were well signposted making it easy to see where to disembark. Things got a little trickier at this point as we had to cross lots of small bridges over the canals and drag our luggage down a maze of narrow roads to try and navigate our way to the hotel.
We eventually made it there and breathed a sign of relief – that was until we found out the hotel was on the third floor of a building without a lift and we’d have to carry our luggage all the way up the stairs!
It was a beautiful, sunny day so, that little adventure over, we spent a bit of time settling into our room before venturing out into the city for the afternoon.
Our hotel was in a pretty good location – in a quieter, less touristy area but only a 5-10 minute walk from the Rialto Bridge and many of the other tourist attractions.
Armed with our map, we made our way along the narrow cobbled streets. As we neared the main area of Venice, the streets became noticeably busier. We soon discovered that every street looked the same and we seemed to be going around in circles getting nowhere fast when suddenly we found ourselves at the Grand Canal with the Rialto Bridge ahead of us!
Nearby we found a small market going on so had a quick look around the stalls before walking back to the canal and crossing the bridge.
Here, we found a cafe to sit out at and had drinks in the sunshine watching the people, boats and gondolas go past.
Deciding you can’t go to Venice and not have a gondola ride, we began to investigate the cost. Prices seemed to be per boat so it was more for a private gondola ride and there were extra charges to get the gondolier to sing. We hovered around the canal banks wondering if we could find another group to share a gondola with and before long, a family of 4 asked if we wanted to split the cost with them.
Jumping in, we were able to sit at opposite ends of the gondola so sharing didn’t spoil the experience and the family even offered to switch places with us half way around so we could sit up the other end of the boat for a while. It also meant we could take photos for each other so they were able to get a family photo together on the gondola then take one of the 2 of us.
The gondola ride took us out on the Grand Canal and under the Rialto Bridge then down some of the narrower canals leading off it. It was a really fun experience and we got a decent amount of time on the water for the price we paid.
After our gondola ride, we continued to walk down the narrow streets, eventually finding ourselves out in St Mark’s Square. The square was busy but as there was only a short queue to go into St Mark’s Basilica, we joined the queue and soon found ourselves inside.
We spent some time looking around the grandly decorated cathedral then started to find our way back to our hotel. That evening, we ate at a restaurant we found near to where we were staying to avoid the inflated prices in the more touristy areas, walking back to the Grand Canal after.
The next day, we made our way back to St Mark’s Square and bought tickets to visit Doge’s Palace.
Our tour was self-guided and it was interesting to see the ornate decor and artwork inside the impressive building.
From the palace, you can also peep into the Bridge of Sighs, so called because it lead from the palace to the prison across the canal. Those who crossed it were mainly prisoners who were said to sigh as they lost their freedom.
After exploring the Palace, we walked around the outside of the building to see the Bridge of Sighs from the outside.
Returning to St Mark’s Square, we watched the clock in St Mark’s Clock Tower chime on the hour, its two bronze figures appearing to strike a bell, before walking away from the square to find somewhere cheaper to have some lunch.
With the already dull weather turning to rain that afternoon, we took the opportunity to visit some museums starting with the National Archaeological Museum of Venice and then moving on to Museo Correr, an art museum overlooking St Mark’s Square.
That evening, we walked back to St Mark’s Square. The weather had now cleared and the square was busy once again.
Street performers and opera singers filled the Square and we stayed to watch for a bit although decided against taking a seat at any of the bars and restaurants overlooking the Square having heard stories of extortionate prices being charged just to sit before even ordering anything!
We had one more full day left in the city of Venice and still plenty to explore. We began our morning with a stroll to the tucked away Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo, a building known for its beautiful external spiral staircase.
Then we walked through the city’s maze of streets to Ponte dell’Accademia, a huge bridge and one of only four to cross the Grand Canal.
Crossing the bridge, we then walked to the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, a domed Roman Catholic church which stands imposingly on the canal side. Looking across the water from there, you can see the bell tower in St Mark’s Square in the distance.
Walking back towards St Mark’s Square afterwards, we explored some of the streets leading away from it visiting some of the more tucked away churches we came across as we wandered.
Later finding ourselves passing Teatro La Fenice, a famous Venetian opera house, we decided to go inside and take a tour. We were given audio guides with our tickets telling us about each room we went into and finishing with a look into the auditorium and the tour also included a special exhibition on opera singer Maria Callas who began her career at La Fenice. While visiting the theatre wasn’t something on our Venice ‘to do’ list, we found the visit really interesting.
With a late afternoon flight booked out of Venice the next day, we still had some time that morning for last minute sightseeing. Once again finding ourselves back in St Mark’s Square we took some last minute photos and enjoyed the atmosphere before my friend had to leave to catch her flight home. With a bit more time to spare and the sun finally shining, I made a spur of the moment decision to go up St Mark’s Campanile, the Square’s famous bell tower.
There was quite a queue but it seemed to be moving so I thought I had more than enough time.
Unfortunately, the queue slowed down and by the time I was finally admitted into the bell tower, I was getting short on time an couldn’t spend quite as long up there as I would have liked to. It was still worth the money and the wait though as the views over the city were really pretty.
After my flying visit to the Campanile, it was time to wave goodbye to St Mark’s Square one last time and to make my way back to the hotel to collect my luggage. From the hotel, I caught the airport water taxi from a nearby stop across the the airport.
I was glad I had finally got around to visiting Venice. The city is a really pretty city to wander around once you get your head around its maze of narrow streets and realise they all eventually seem to lead to St Mark’s Square. I had found the city to be extremely busy, touristy and over-priced but I had gone expecting all those things and it hadn’t ruined my stay too much. There was certainly plenty to do and see and I’d love to return there one day.
I was in Italy, one of my favourite European countries, and after spending a few days in the Tuscan city of Florence and its surrounds, it was time to move on to our second destination, Bologna in the Emilia-Romagna region of North Italy.
Arriving from Florence by train, we took a taxi to our hotel. It was late afternoon and once settled in, we grabbed a map of the city from the hotel reception and headed straight out to familiarise ourselves with our surroundings.
A short distance from where we were staying, we found ourselves in Piazza Maggiore, the city’s main square.
The square is surrounded by some of Bologna’s most important buildings including Biblioteca Salaborsa- a historic library – and the Basilica di San Pietro and in the centre of the square lies the Fountain of Neptune.
From Piazza Maggiore, we walked along Via d’Azeglio, a pedestrianised street lined with high street stores and cafes before looping back around to the main square again.
That evening, we walked north of the square finding ourselves in a maze of narrow streets and choosing a small Trattoria to have dinner at before walking back to our hotel.
With one full day left to explore the city, we found a self-guided walking tour online to follow around the city.
Returning to Piazza Maggiore, we visited the Basilica di San Pietro and then Biblioteca Salaborsa. While this is the main public library in the city, the main reason for visiting actually lies beneath the building. Through the floor in the centre of the library, it is possible to see the ruins of an ancient building underneath.
We walked down to the basement level of the building where for a small fee, it was possible to get a bit closer to the ruins, viewing them from an open walkway that has been built above.
Next, we crossed the square to visit Palazzo Communale. Formerly a palace, it now houses some of the city’s administrative offices but is also home to the Civic Art Collection.
We wandered through the building looking at some of the art on display and enjoying the views over Piazza Maggiore from the building’s windows.
From Piazza Maggiore, we walked the short distance to the Archaeological Civic Museum.
The museum is worth visiting for its building alone, being housed in a 15th century Palazzo, and it contains exhibitions which include Greek, Roman and Egyptian artefacts.
After spending an hour or so looking around, we continued our self-guided tour of the city walking down to the Basilica of San Domenico, a historic church known for its multitude of priceless works of art.
We then walked back on ourselves and along Via Rizzoli towards Two Towers Piazza with the St Petronius statue stood in front of the tall, imposing structures.
After stopping for gelato from Gelateria Gianni, we walked through the Quadrilatero area to Basilica di Santa Stefano, a maze of 4 (originally there were 7) connecting churches.
For our final stop on our sightseeing tour, we walked back to Piazza Maggiore and then headed north to find Finestrella di Via Piella. Here you can peer through a window in a wall to see one of the remaining sections of one of Bologna’s historic canals, Canale delle Moline. Taking a picture through the window, it could easily have been a photo taken of the more famous canals of Venice!
Feet aching from walking all over the city, we returned to the narrow streets of the Quadrilatero, an old medieval market area just east of Piazza Maggiore. Here, we sat out at one of the many bars for Aperitivo, enjoying a selection of breads, cheeses and meats over drinks.
Returning to our hotel for a bit to rest, we then ventured out once more that evening, again finding a small tucked away Trattoria just north of the main touristy areas of the city for a late dinner.
I’d enjoyed my visit to the city of Bologna, less touristy and busy than Florence had been but still with plenty to see and do. Next up, Venice!