Lake Garda and Verona

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.

Views across the lake

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.

Watching the sunset across Lake Garda

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!

Spending the evening in Sirmione

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.

About to depart on a boat tour, and below, exploring the Lake and Sirmione

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.

Lakeside in Sirmione, and below, Gelato!!

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.

A day in Sirmione, and below, views from the castle

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.

View over the lake

The next day, we caught the Sirmione land train to the Grottoes of Cattulus, the ruins of an ancient Roman Villa.

View from the top

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.

In Desenzano del Garda

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.

An afternoon in 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.

The amphitheater in Verona

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.

Above, and below, a day in Verona

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.

Milan

One of the last trips I took last year before everything shut down and freedom to travel became a thing of the past, was a short city break to the Italian city of Milan. It was right on the cusp of Corona Virus getting a grip and at the time, all those things that we’ve now grown accustomed to – arriving to temperature checks and seeing many members of the public masking up on public transport etc – seemed a bit of a novelty. Milan and its neighbouring areas later became a hotspot for the virus in Italy and a week later I found myself to be the subject of a debate at work as to whether, having recently visited the area, I needed to be sent home or not! I wasn’t, if you’re wondering, but had I been sent home, it would have been worth it for what was a great short break away.

That was my third trip to Milan but only the second of which was planned in advance having once found myself stuck there for a day unable to get a train out of the city to Florence, and while it has never been my favourite Italian city to visit, it still has plenty to offer for a short break.

Closed designer stores – August in Milan

Picking when to visit Milan can have a huge effect on impressions of the city. Being a teacher, my first visit was in August during the main summer break and as part of a longer, city-hopping trip to Italy. What we didn’t realise was that in August, with the heat in the city, many of the businesses there close down as everyone takes off to the nearby Italian lakes. We had trouble finding any restaurants open other than the touristy ones in the centre and many of the designer stores had ‘closed until September’ signs in their windows. The whole city felt like a bit of a ghost town!

Walking towards Sforza Castle in Milan

On that first trip to Milan, I stayed at a small hotel on the edge of the Zona Buenos Aires area. From here, we were able to walk to all the main sites and, choosing to use the hop on/off tour bus as well, found we didn’t need to use the public transport system at all.

On my most recent visit, as we were visiting the city for a concert, we stayed further out of the city towards the arena in the Morivione district. As Milan has an excellent and easy to navigate metro system, this didn’t hinder our sightseeing at all as trains into the city centre were regular and quick.

The impressive Milan Duomo

The main must-see attraction in Milan, and in my opinion, worth the trip alone, is the stunning Duomo di Milano or Milan Cathedral. No matter how often I see this impressive building, the elaborate facade with its intricate carvings never fails to take my breath away. Entrance to the cathedral is by ticket only and these can be purchased online or on the day from the nearby, well-signposted ticket office.

If you have plenty of time, then buy a combo ticket allowing you entry into the church, archaeological area, museum and rooftops.

On a clear day, the views over Milan from the rooftops are pretty good and it’s interesting to be able to get a bit closer to the gargoyles and other carvings decorating the cathedral’s exterior. My visit to the rooftop last February, on a surprisingly warm and sunny day, was punctuated by hearing sharp blows on the guards’ whistles as they reminded visitors to be respectful and not treat it as a rooftop terrace to sunbathe on!

I followed my visit with a trip to the nearby Duomo Museum which houses various artefacts and original works of art from the Cathedral.

Piazza del Duomo

The busy Piazza del Duomo in front of the Cathedral is a bit of a tourist attraction in itself with crowds fighting for the best spot to get a photo of the Cathedral and paying locals for bird seed to feed the square’s famously friendly pigeons. Its also home to various touristy bars and restaurants which, while not as expensive as I was expecting, unsurprisingly don’t offer the best food you are going to find in the city. Around the square, you’ll also find a few high street stores.

Above, and below, a visit to Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

If it’s designer shopping you want then Milan is definitely the place to go. The elegant Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, said to be one of the World’s oldest shopping malls, is full of designer fashion boutiques and, even if the prices are out of your budget, its fun to window shop. The mall is home to a range of bars and restaurants too and we enjoyed a delicious pizza lunch at Sorbillo restaurant followed by gelato from Venchi!

Milan is also home to the famous opera theatre, La Scala. If you want to see a performance here, it’s best to book in advance. Guided tours of building can also be taken.

La Scala Opera House

While not the most obvious place to visit in Italy if it’s museums you’re after, Milan still has plenty to offer with many small galleries and exhibits to visit. The most famous work of art found in the city is Da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper. Tickets are needed to view the painting and often sell out well in advance. On all my visits, I’ve left it too late to book and have yet to get a ticket to visit.

Above, and below, exploring Sforza Castle

The Sforza Castle complex is home to a variety of museums all housed inside the 15th century building. It is free to visit the castle complex itself but there is a small fee for a ticket to visit the museums, the price of which depends on which rooms and exhibits you want to explore.

One of the museums is the Museum of Pietà Rondanini Michelangelo displaying Michelangelo’s last piece of work, the Rondanini Pietà, an unfinished marble sculpture.

Arco della Pace at the entrance to Parco Sempione

Parco Sempione, with its impressive archway entrance, lies directly to the rear of Sforza Castle and is also worth a wander through if you are in the area. Other pretty parks in the city include Giardini Indro Montanelli, Milan’s pretty public gardens.

On my last visit to the city, we found ourselves in the Navigli district, an area of the city we had not visited before.

Above, and below, contrasting daylight/nighttime visits to the Navigli area

The Navigli are a system of canals. Currently, bars and restaurants line the walkways along the edge of the canals. We first visited in the evening. The area was lively but with a great atmosphere as people sat out enjoying drinks and aperitivo. After wandering round for while and stopping for a few drinks, we chose one of the many restaurants to eat at.

We returned to the Navigli district the following morning to find it just as busy with people shopping and sat out at the cafes enjoying the sunshine. It was definitely a fun place of the city to visit!

There’s still plenty of things for me to do and see in Milan and I look forward to the next time I find myself in this exciting city.

A weekend in Venice

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.

The Rialto Bridge

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.

Down by the Grand Canal

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.

On the gondola sailing under the Rialto Bridge

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.

Above, our Gondolier, and below, enjoying our gondola ride

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.

Above, St Mark’s Cathedral, and below, in a busy St Mark’s Square

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.

Above, and below, evening by the Grand Canal

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.

Doge’s Palace

The next day, we made our way back to St Mark’s Square and bought tickets to visit Doge’s Palace.

Above, looking up at the palace from its courtyard, and below, exploring the 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.

St Mark’s Clock Tower

St Mark’s Square at night

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.

St Mark’s Cathedral at night

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.

Above, Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, and below, inside the church and the views across to St Mark’s Square from nearby

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.

Above, and below, views from St Mark’s Campanile

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.

A trip to Bologna

Spending 2 nights in the North Italy city

Piazza Maggiore, Bologna

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.

Palazzo del Podesta in Piazza Maggiore

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.

Historic buildings surrond Piazza Maggiore

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.

Ancient ruins below Biblioteca Salaborsa

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.

A walkway built over the ancient ruinsunder Biblioteca Salaborsa

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.

Looking out at the Basilica di San Pietro from Palazzo Communale

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.

Art at 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.

Above, and below, at the Basilica di Santa Stefano

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!

Visiting Florence and its surrounds

A city break visiting Florence, Lucca, Pisa and Siena

With one of my friends studying at a language school in Florence, it wasn’t long before I arranged a trip out there to coincide with her course finishing so we could spend some time travelling in our favourite European country, Italy.

Milan’s stunning Duomo, and below, pizza and gelato in Florence

We planned that I would spend a few days in Florence during which my friend would show me around the city she had been living in the last few months and from where we could also take day trips out to nearby towns and cities then we’d travel by train up to Bologna for a few days, a city which neither of us had previously visited and finally, catch the train to Venice where we would end our trip.

Not being able to find any reasonably priced flights into Florence itself, I instead planned to fly to Milan, then catch a train to complete my journey. Being used to just being able to buy a ticket and hop onto a train in the UK, I assumed that the same could be done in Italy, my friend suggesting that this was the case too, but upon arrival in Milan and making my way from the airport to the Central Station, I found that all tickets on the intercity trains had to be pre-booked and as that weekend was a public holiday, most of the train leaving in the next few hours were fully booked!

Luckily, I had taken an early flight into Italy and it was still morning so, managing to get myself on a train leaving late afternoon, I checked my case into the station’s Left Luggage for a few euros and had a wander into central Milan, a city I was vaguely familiar with from a previous visit. After spending a few hours window shopping and gasping in awe once again at the breath-taking Duomo, I grabbed some lunch and walked back to the station ready to finally catch my train to Florence!

Arriving in the city early evening, I managed to navigate my way to the centrally located AirBnB apartment we had booked to finally meet up with my friend and once I’d settled in, we went out for drinks followed by a pizza dinner at one of the local restaurants and gelato for dessert.

A busy Piazza della Signoria

The next day, a day we had designated for sightseeing in the city, we awoke to heavy rain. Not letting the weather deter us, my friend took me round the city past its impressive Basilica, The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and up to Piazza della Signoria, the city’s main square, overlooked by Palazzo Vecchio. The square is home to a variety of sculptures including a copy of Michelangelo’s David.

The Loggia dei Lanzi sculpture gallery in Piazza della Signoria, and below, queues outside the Uffizi Gallery

The square was extremely busy with it being both a weekend and public holiday and looking out across the square from the steps of the Loggia dei Lanzi sculpture gallery, there was nothing but a sea of umbrellas in front of us!

From Piazza della Signoria, we walked to the Uffizi Gallery, a huge museum which houses famous works of art including Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.

Unfortunately, with the city being so busy over the holiday weekend, there was a 2 hours wait to get into the gallery for anyone who hadn’t pre-booked tickets so, as my friend had visited previously, I decided to give it a miss!

By the River Arno with Ponte Vecchio in the background, and below, crossing Ponte Vecchio

Instead, we continued on towards the River Arno to cross the Ponte Vecchio, the famous stone bridge lined with jewellery stores before walking up past Pitti Palace and along to Piazzale Michelangelo walking through the pretty Rose Garden along the way.

The panoramic views over Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo were really beautiful.

The Rose Garden near Piazzale Michelangelo, and below, in Piazzale Michelangelo enjoying the views

In the square itself, as well as finding yet another copy of the artist’s David sculpture, we also found a gelato festival going on! Investigating further, we discovered that for a set price, it was possible to get a sample of gelato from each of the stands, exchanging your final ticket for a second sample of the flavour you liked most.

We didn’t need much convincing to take part and were soon parting with our money in exchange for a stamp card.

Eating gelato in Piazzale Michelangelo while enjoying the view, and below, at the Gelato Festival

After spending the afternoon going from stall to stall enjoying the gelato on offer, we were unanimous in our decision that the Nutella gelato was our favourite and both went back for seconds!

Artwork in the Basilica of Santa Croce

Full up on gelato, we waddled our way back across the River Arno and walked to the Basilica of Santa Croce, spending some time exploring inside the beautiful church.

The painted dome of Florence’s Basilica

Next,we walked back to the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore where, seeing that the crowds from earlier had disappeared, we joined the short queue to go inside and see the amazing dome interior painted with a representation of The Last Judgement.

Finally, walking back to our apartment, we stopped at the Basilica of St Lorenzo, one of Florence’s largest and oldest churches.

Lucca’s Cathedral

The next day, we had made plans to travel out of Florence to the city of Lucca. Catching the train from the main station in Florence, we arrived in Lucca mid-morning.

After exploring the city and some of its churches, we had lunch in one of the pretty squares before visiting the Puccini Museum – Lucca is the city the famous Opera composer was born in.

Then, after visiting its impressive Cathedral, Duomo di San Martino, there was just enough time for spot of shopping before returning by train back to Florence.

We took another trip away from the city of Florence the next day, this time to the walled city of Siena.

Stood in Piazza del Campo in Siena, and below, enjoying a day out in Siena

We spent the day wandering through the city, having lunch in the beautiful Piazza del Campo – the city’s main square – before walking to its Cathedral, the striking Duomo di Siena, with its distinctive stripey decor!

I was up early the next day, our last full day in Florence before moving on to Bologna. We planned to spend the day out of the city again, this time travelling to Pisa, but first, I wanted to visit the Accademia Gallery, home to Michelangelo’s David sculpture.

Above, Michelangelo’s David sculpture, and below, at the Accademia Gallery

I arrived at the gallery about half hour before it opened so I was one of the first in the queue and was through the doors within a few minutes of it opening. The museum was pretty quiet at that time of day meaning I could take my time admiring the many works of art that were housed there.

In Piazza dei Miracoli

After visiting the Accademia Gallery, it was back to the central station to catch a train out of the city to Pisa. From the station we walked through the more modern part of the city grabbing some lunch at a bakery before reaching Piazza dei Miracoli.

Pisa Cathedral and Baptistery

The large, walled square is home to a collection of buildings including Pisa Cathedral but more famously, and the reason we were there, it is also where the Leaning Tower of Pisa stands!

Above, the view form the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and below, visiting the famous Leaning Tower

We spent some time trying to get the standard photo of us holding up the leaning tower before visiting the other buildings. Then I decided to buy a ticket to actually go up the Leaning Tower, an odd experience as you try to walk on the slanted floors but worth it for the views from the top!

Then, it was back to Florence for our last evening in the city. After a pizza dinner, we went out for drinks, stopping to take photos of the Duomo lit up at night.

Above, and below, Florence Basilica

The next morning, we wandered through the city of Florence one last time, stopping to take a few more photos of the Duomo seeing as the weather was finally a bit better! Then it was back to the station, this time to leave Tuscany behind and catch the train to our next destination, the city of Bologna.

Beautiful Sorrento

Visiting Italy’s Amalfi coast

Having spent the last 5 days based in the city of Naples on the west coast of Italy, we were now cramming ourselves and our luggage onto the very busy Circumvesuviana train to spend a few days in the coastal town of Sorrento.

The view from our hotel room

It was our third time riding the Circumvesuviana line from Naples having used it already over the last few days to visit the archaeological sites of Herculaneum and Pompeii as well as to visit Mount Vesuvius itself. Sorrento is the last stop on the line and it took us just over an hour to get there.

From Sorrento station, we got a taxi to our hotel for the next 3 nights. Hotel La Badia was situated on top of a hill just a short, but steep, 15 minute walk from the centre of town. Being on a hilltop, there were beautiful, sweeping views of the coast from our room.

The view from our room at night

By the time we had arrived and settled in, it was already dusk. We had a wander into town and I was surprised at how crowded with tourists it felt after spending time in the much calmer Naples. It did at least make for a jovial atmosphere and despite it being night time, I could straight away see how pretty Sorrento was. We were spoilt for choice for places to eat and settled on pasta from a small restaurant-cafe down a narrow side street.

By the hotel pool

With our time in Naples being spent constantly on the go either in the city or on trips out to nearby attractions, we decided to spend our first day in Sorrento relaxing. We awoke to beautiful weather – blue skies and warm sunshine – so after breakfast at the hotel, spent the first morning sat by the hotel pool and cooling off with a quick dip before taking a stroll into town mid-afternoon to explore.

The busy narrow streets of Sorrento

The town of Sorrento is made up of a series of narrow cobbled streets all lined with a range of stores and restaurants and we spent the afternoon browsing and shopping for souvenirs. Every other shop seemed to be a Lemoncello store, selling a range of products based on the liqueur famously produced in the region and all offering samples to try and get tourists through the doors.

From the town, we walked down to the marina, strolling along the front to enjoy the views before sitting at one of the many restaurant-bars near the harbour for drinks.

A busy summer evening in Sorrento

After more shopping back in town, we found another bar perfectly positioned for people watching and sat out in the sunshine for aperitivo – an Italian socialising tradition of having drinks served with various nibbles.

After heading back to the hotel to freshen up, we then walked back into town. Sorrento is just as bustling in the evening with many of the stores lining the narrow streets staying open late so we once again wandered through the centre to look in the shops before going for a late dinner at one of the many local restaurants.

The next day, we took a boat trip out to the nearby Amalfi coast town of Positano.

Above, enjoying the views in o, and below, exploring Positano

The town is built into a cliff and we spent the day exploring, shopping, visiting some of its churches and enjoying the amazing views over the coast from the cliffs. After a pizza lunch at one of the many restaurants, we spent some time relaxing on the beach before catching the boat back to Sorrento for the evening.

Once back in Sorrento, we spent the last evening of our trip having drinks in town. I’d enjoyed our time on the Amalfi coast and Sorento had been the perfect place for a relaxing few days after our busy time sightseeing in Naples.

Visiting Naples

Spending 5 nights in Napoli

With my friend studying Italian in Rome, I decided to fly out there as her course ended for a couple of nights there followed by a few days in Naples and then Sorrento.

In St Peter’s Square

Having been to Rome a few times before, my time there was mainly spent at the bars, cafes and restaurants catching up with my friend and enjoying the sunshine in Villa Borghese gardens. From here we caught the train from Termini station south to the city of Naples.

It would be my first visit to the city although my friend had been once before and we were staying at the same hotel she had stayed in before, La Stanze Del Vicere Hotel, near the Toledo area of the city and not far from the Archaeological Museum. The hotel is situated inside a restored 16th century townhouse and the original 16th century staircase remains leading into the main building.

Pizza in Naples

Checking into the hotel late afternoon, one of the first things we wanted to do was experience the famous Neopolitan pizza – the Margherita pizza is said to have originated in the city of Naples, but more on that later! – so we went for a walk to Piazza Dante, stopping along the way at a tucked away restaurant for dinner, then on to the popular Piazza Bellini for drinks.

The next day, we walked the short distance to Naples Archaeological Museum spending most of the morning exploring its extensive collection of Roman artifacts including many from the nearby archaeological sites of Herculaneum and the more famous Pompeii.

After leaving the museum, we spent some time exploring the historic centre of Naples. Heading south along Via Duomo, we passed Naples Cathedral stopping to have a look inside then we wandered along the busy Via dei Tribunali with its many cafes and souvenir stores.

Above, and below, visiting Naples Underground

After stopping for coffee and pastries we decided to buy tickets for the nearby Naples Underground attraction. Here, visitors can take a tour of a series of tunnels running beneath the city once used as Roman aqueducts and, more recently, as bomb shelters in the Second World War.

San Domenico Maggiore Church

The tour was really interesting but not one to take if you don’t like confined spaces – at one point we had to squeeze along an extremely narrow passageway with just a candle to light the way!

Following on from our underground tour, we continued to walk south towards the marina stopping in Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, overlooked by the church it is named after. Unfortunately, the church’s doors were closed so we didn’t have chance to look inside but instead, we sat out at a cafe in the square having drinks to cool us down before continuing our walk to the seafront.

Above, and below, visiting Castel Nuovo

Finally reaching the seafront late afternoon, we visited Castel Nuovo, a medieval castle overlooking the marina.

Piazza del Plebiscito

While not the most exciting attraction in the city, the views across the bay with Vesuvius looming in the distance made the small entrance fee worth it.

Fontana del Gigante

From Castel Nuovo, we walked towards Piazza del Plebiscito, a large pedestrianised square beside the Royal Palace of Naples before taking a stroll along the sea wall to the imposing Fontana del Gigante, a 17th century fountain and then along the peninsula to Castel dell’Ovo.

Above, and below, visiting Castel dell’Ovo

It was free to look around this castle overlooking the harbour and as the sun was starting to set, we spent a bit of time enjoying the views.

After visiting Castel dell’Ovo, we walked back along the sea front to Piazza del Plebiscito and the nearby Pizzeria Brandi.

Above, and below, dining at Pizzeria Brandi

Supposedly the birthplace of the Margherita pizza, there was a long wait for a table but it was worth it to eat in such a historic venue as well as it being the best pizza I had all trip!

Stopping for dessert

Then we walked to a nearby metro station to catch the train back to our hotel, stopping first for more drinks (and dessert!) at one of the many bars along the way.

Visiting Herculaneum

The next day, we caught the metro to Central Station where we would be catching the Circovesuviana train out to the archaeological site of Herculaneum.

The Circovesuviana runs between Naples and Sorrento with stops including Pompeii and this would be the first of a few trips along this route during our trip.

Herculaneum is an ancient town which, like the better known Pompeii, was buried under ash following the explosion of Mount Vesuvius.

Above, and below, exploring Herculaneum

The site is even better preserved than Pompeii – there was a lot less structural damage to the town than there was to Pompeii so there are buildings almost entirely intact with perfectly preserved mosaics and many household objects still there. Visiting the site was almost like walking around a Roman town as it would have been back then.

After spending a few hours exploring, we stopped for lunch nearby before catching the train back to Naples where we spent the evening having drinks in Piazza Bellini.

Day 3 of our stay in Naples was once again spent outside of the the city, this time visiting the island of Capri.

Enjoying the sunshine on the beach at Capri

We’d booked our ferry ticket in advance catching the metro down to the marina early morning ready to board. Once in Capri, I was really looking forward to seeing the Blue Grotto, a sea cave you can go on a boat tour to visit, but after a tumultuous crossing from Naples – causing sea sickness among many passengers! – it was announced that the conditions were too rough for the small rowing boats to make trips out to it.

The seafront at Capri

That gave us a bit more time in Capri itself and we decided to spend some time relaxing on the small pebble beach enjoying the sunshine for a while in order to recover from the ferry trip!

Exploring beautiful Capri

From the beach, we took the bus to Anacapri, one of the towns on the island situated high up on the island. Being summer, there were huge queues for the bus – a tiny minibus with very few seats and we were packed on like sardines trying our best not to fall over as we raced up the steep hills of Capri.

Once at our destination, we spent some time enjoying the views over the bay before wandering down the streets for some window shopping and then finding somewhere just about affordable for lunch.

Saying goodbye to Capri

After lunch we walked to Capri town for more window shopping before catching the funicular railway back down to sea level and catching the ferry back to Naples.

Our last full day in Naples and we were again riding the Circumvesuviana, this time to Pompeii.

Above,and below, exploring Pompeii

The Pompeii archaeological site was somewhere that had been high on my list of places I had wanted to visit for a long time and while I did find exploring the site fascinating, I do wish that I had taken a guided tour of the site to get more out of my visit and learn more about what I was seeing.

Arriving early, we spent all morning at Pompeii. After eating lunch at a local cafe, we then went to visit the crater of Mount Vesuvius.

Above, and below, hiking to the crater at Vesuvius

We booked transport on the Busvia del Vesuvio which dropped us at the start of the path which lead up to the crater. It was an easier hike than I expected and once at the crater, there were guides at the top ready to answer any questions and reassure us that we weren’t in any immediate danger of an eruption! After retracing our steps back down the path, we were picked up by the bus and returned to Pompeii station to catch our train back to Naples again.

The next day, we would be leaving Naples for a few days on the Amalfi coast but first, we had the morning to spend in the city.

Shopping on Via San Gregorio

We decided to walk to Via San Gregorio, often referred to as ‘Christmas Avenue’. The road is famous for being the home of a row of shops selling Christmas ornaments and gifts all year around. After spending some time browsing, we picked up some ornaments as souvenirs to take with us.

Then it was time to collect our luggage from our hotel and once again make our way to the train station to catch the Circumvesuvio, this time, all the way to the end of the line in Sorrento.

I’d really enjoyed my time in Naples and the surrounding area. Away from the touristy marina area, I had found it to feel a lot more authentically Italian than some of the other more touristy Italian cities I had visited with its narrow lanes, cobbled streets and residents busily going about their day and I hoped to return someday.

A weekend in Rome

Taking a European city break in a pandemic

I thought I’d pause on recounting my memories of a pre-pandemic trip to New Zealand for a one off post on an unexpected trip I took to Rome last weekend. Not unexpected because it was unplanned – quite the opposite in fact – but unexpected because having had various other trips I’d had planned for this year cancelled, I never once thought this one would actually go ahead with the way things currently are.

On board my Jet2 flight to Rome

The trip had been planned many months ago as a long weekend away for my friend’s 40th birthday. We’d booked return flights from Birmingham airport and a hotel a just a few metro stops out of Rome city centre but as the situation with the global pandemic continued, we became less and less confident of the trip happening so decided against booking any tours or attractions in case we didn’t have time to cancel and get refunded.

As September came to an end, Italy remained on the UK’s travel corridor list, meaning we’d not have to quarantine upon return from a trip there. But in the week leading up to our Friday departure date, as Covid cases in Italy continued to steadily rise, rumours began to circulate in the media that it was sure to be added to the UK’s quarantine list when it got it’s weekly update.

As the list is updated on a Thursday evening, this would not give us much time to cancel or rearrange things and it was a stressful day waiting to find out whether our early morning departure the next day would go ahead or not.

Luckily, Italy was saved for another week and I had to rush to pack for a trip I never thought would actually go ahead!

Outside the Colosseum and below, going inside the Colosseum on a previous visit to Rome.

Friday morning we were up early and at the airport the standard 2 hours before our 8am departure. It was the first time I’d travelled abroad since the World began to lock down in March and only the third trip abroad I’d taken this year following two February half term trips, one to Milan and one to Disneyland Paris. Little had changed about the airport experience except for having to wear face coverings everywhere unless sat down at the restaurants and cafes and despite less flights meaning less people, the queues through security didn’t move any quicker as there were a lot less lanes open.

Once in the departure lounge, I just had about time to munch down a bacon sandwich from Costa and buy a bottle of water from Boots before we had to make our way to the gate for boarding.

We were flying with Jet2, an airline I’d never flown with before. We were all on the same booking but despite being sat in the same row, had been given the middle and aisle seat on the left of the row and the seat across the aisle on the right meaning my friend in the middle seat was sat next to someone she didn’t know in the window seat and I was sat next to a couple I didn’t know across the aisle. I was surprised that with things as they are, that more effort wasn’t made to seat parties in the same bubble together rather than next to random strangers.

Roman ruins at the Forum
View of the Roman Forum and below, visiting the Forum on a previous trip to Rome

Our masks had to be worn throughout the 2.5 hour flight unless eating or drinking and we were encouraged to stay in our seats as much as possible with queuing in the aisle for the toilet no longer permitted. I was surprised to see that there were magazines, menus and safety cards tucked into the pouch in front of each seat as usual for us to flick through during the flight especially as no sanitiser was being provided by the airline.

Luckily I’d taken my own bottle on board in my handbag which I used regularly throughout the flight.

Even though signs up around Fiumicino Airport said arrivals would be subject to temperature tests, we only had to clear passport control once we’d landed. We had had to fill in a declaration form on the plane saying that we hadn’t tested positive for Covid in the last 14 days but this was collected in by the flight attendants to hand in upon arrival on behalf of all the passengers.

Above and below, visiting Palatine Hill on a previous trip to Rome

We had booked a private taxi transfer to our hotel and the driver was waiting for us at arrivals. We had to gel our hands before touching the seat belts and like in the UK, our masks had to stay on for the journey. As we travelled, the driver informed us that due to rising Covid case numbers, from noon that day it had been made mandatory in Rome and the region of Lazio to wear face coverings at all times, inside and out, and it would be enforced by fine from midnight.

Throughout the weekend, we saw police and military out in force on the streets of Rome blowing their whistles and shouting at the few people who may have removed their masks but overall, there was 99% compliance everywhere we went.

The National Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II and below, getting a bit closer on a previous trip

Our hotel was a bit of a hidden gem. A bed and breakfast hidden on the seventh floor of an apartment block in the Garbatella suburb, we were mildly worried when we pulled up to a slightly run down looking side street. But after following the instructions we’d been sent to navigate our way through the rather high-tech, keyless and contactless locking system, we found ourselves in a really lovely, clean and spacious hotel room.

The room lead out into a common area which we assumed would normally be where breakfast was served. Instead, breakfast was a selection of pre-packaged goodies in our room, such as croissants and cookies, which were topped up daily when our room was serviced. We had a coffee machine and coffee pods in our room and a kettle lay out in the common area next to a bottle of sanitiser and wipes although, despite teabags being provided, as I often find the case in Europe, there was no sign of any milk for my tea and I had to buy some from the local convenience store!

A quiet Trevi Fountain

After settling in and freshening up, we headed straight out for the afternoon walking straight down the main road to Garbatella station. The area seemed very authentically Italian with office workers and locals filling the tables at pavement cafes and shopping at the neighbourhood stores and market stands. It was a 10-15 minute walk to the station where we bought a 72-hour travel pass for 18 euros and then caught the metro just 3 stops to Colosseo, the stop for the Colosseum.

Crowds at the Trevi Fountain on a previous visit to Rome

As we exited the station, the impressive, ancient Colosseum building immediately loomed in front of us. Having been to Rome twice before, the first time spending almost a week properly exploring and the second time spending 24 hours just passing through, I had toured the Colosseum before. That time, we had walked to the quieter and less visited Palatine Hill to buy tickets allowing us entry to three sites (Palatine Hill, the Roman Forum and the Colosseum) and were then able to skip the line upon visiting the Colosseum later that day. The building was just as impressive from the inside as the outside and I found it fascinating to find out about what it would have been like to be there all that time ago attending a huge event.

The Spanish Steps

This time, we admired the building from the outside taking plenty of photos and fending off ticket touts and tour guides trying to convince us to buy from them, eventually replying to them all with a standard “we’ve already toured it” in order for them to leave us alone!

Aperitivo in Testaccio

From the Colosseum, we walked past the ruins of the Roman Forum. Again, having visited before, we didn’t venture in this time. On my first visit to Rome, it had been an extremely hot August day when I had visited the Forum straight after spending a few hours wandering through the sun-drenched ruins of Palatine Hill. Tired, hot and in need of shade and water, I’m not sure I had fully appreciated what I had seen there with one ruin starting to look like the rest and I’d like to go back sometime and maybe tour both of these places with a tour guide rather than wander through myself. Today, we just took photos of the ruins from the viewing point before continuing on towards the Vittorio Emanuele II National Monument.

Cacio e Pepe at Felice a Testaccio restaurant

This monument is one of the buildings that stands out the most to me from my memories of my first visit to Rome. Taking the open top tour bus from our Termini area hotel, I always remember rounding a corner and suddenly seeing this white, marble building glittering bright in the sunshine and everyone on board simultaneously gasping at the sight of it. Relatively modern compared to the ancient Roman buildings scattered around the city – construction didn’t being until 1885 – it’s classical architecture and sheer size still stands out as a beautiful must-see building in the city. It is free to enter the building but with the current restrictions there was a long queue so we didn’t stay on this occasion.

Hugo Spritz cocktails

Next, we walked along Via del Corso, eventually turning off the main road to follow signs to the Trevi Fountain and grabbing a sandwich and drink from a small cafe along the way. The last time I had visited Rome, the Trevi Fountain was covered with scaffolding while restoration work took place and the first time I had visited, it was difficult to get anywhere near it with the huge crowds of tourists filling the square. Today, I was please to find it was a lot quieter and we were easily able to spend some time admiring the beauty of the sculpture and getting our photos.

Our final stop of the afternoon was at the Spanish Steps as we passed through to get to the metro station. Deciding not to climb the steps today, we took a few photos then caught the train back to our hotel to get ready for an evening out.

The Pyramid of Cestius

We began our evening by meeting with a friend who lives in Rome near her Piramide area flat, one metro stop from where we were staying in Garbatella. From here, we took a short walk to Piazza Testaccio, a small square surrounded by bars and cafes where locals would purchase their ‘aperativo’ – drinks served with bite size snacks – and sit out in the square socialising while their children played in the centre of the square!

There was a great atmosphere and the pizza bites, small sandwiches crisps we were served with our drinks were all a delicious appetiser before the meal we had booked for later!

Murals adorn the buildings in the Ostiense area and below, my friends’Sandwich of the day’ at Marigold Cafe and my gelato from Gelateria La Romana in the same area

For our main meal, our friend had booked a highly recommended nearby restaurant, Felice a Testaccio. Here, the most menu item, and the one ordered by us all, was the Roman pasta dish Cacio e Pepe which literally translates as cheese and pepper. Our pepper-sprinkled Tonnarelli pasta was brought out to us in a bowl absolutely covered in parmesan cheese. We then watched as the servers skillfully tossed together the contents of the bowl and a thick cheese sauce was formed. Delicious!

After dinner, we walked back towards Piramide station, stopping for drinks across the road at the Tram Stop bar, my friends particularly enjoying a ‘Hugo Spritz’ – an elderflower flavoured drink – as a change from the usual Aperol Spritz.

Another Aperol Spritz!

After a big night out the day before, we were late up the next morning. Walking back towards the Piramide area (so called because of a huge, first century-built Pyramid-shaped tomb in the area), we met up with our friend at her nearby apartment before going for brunch. She took us to a small cafe/micro-bakery called Marigolds in the nearby Ostiense. There was a half hour wait for a table during which time we wandered through the local streets before returning to be seated.

Pizza at Sorbillo

Marigolds bakes all its bread on the premises but despite this, I found it’s 11 euro charge for a tiny grilled cheese sandwich and 4.50 for a pot of tea to be a bit on the expensive side. My friends did really enjoy their orders of Shakshuka – eggs cooked in a tomato-based sauce – and the sandwich of the day – a huge pork and coleslaw filled sandwich on sourdough.

An almost deserted Spanish Steps in the rain and, below, at St Peters Square in time for a Papal address.

After brunch, we stopped for dessert at Gelateria La Romana – I highly recommend the Biscotto della nonna (like a cookie and cream flavour) and Crema di nocciola al cacao (hazelnut and chocolate) flavours! – then walked from Ostiense to Circo Massimo. We wandered through the grounds of Circo Massimo, the remains of an ancient chariot-racing stadium and continued on to the Jewish Quarter, passing the ancient Roman Theatre, Teatro Marcello which influenced the architecture of the much more-famous and later-built Colosseum. After drinks sat out a a cafe in the Jewish Quarter, we walked back to the Colosseum and caught the metro back to our hotel to freshen up ready for the evening.

That evening, we had decided to dine at Sorbillo, a popular restaurant in the centre of Rome specialising in Neapolitan-style pizzas. I had eaten at Sorbillo’s in Milan in the past and really enjoyed it so was looking forward to eating at the Rome branch. Sorbillo operated a no booking in advance policy so we arrived early at 8pm, just half hour after opening. The restaurant was already busy and we were told it would be a 45 minute wait for a table to be available. Putting our name down, we went for drinks at a bar around the corner and returned to find our table ready.

For starters, we ordered a highly-recommended potato croquette each. When they arrived they were huge and did not disappoint in their taste. Mains was pizza’s all round and although I went for a basic margherita, it was one of the best I’ve ever had! We stayed at Sorbillos late, having drinks at our table after our meal and then walking back towards the Spanish Steps to catch the metro back to our hotel. It was pouring with rain as we left but this did mean that the Spanish Steps were almost completely deserted making for a rare photo opportunity!

Castel Sant’Angelo and, above, touring the Vatican Museums on a previous visit

We had one full day left in Rome and had decided to spend it revisiting, or rather whizzing past, the sights we hadn’t yet seen on this visit. We started in Vatican City where we planned on visiting St Peter’s Basilica. I had taken a tour of the Vatican Museums, which included access to the Sistine Chapel, on a previous visit to Rome, making sure I pre-booked to avoid the huge queues that tend to form there on a daily basis.

View of the River Tiber from Ponte Sant’Angelo

That time, we had arrived back at St Peter’s Basilica just as a mass started meaning I didn’t get to see as much of the church as I would have liked so I hoped to explore a bit more today. However, as we got closer to St Peter’s Square, there was a heavier than usual presence of security and police as well as large crowds of people. We were redirected to a front entrance to the Square where we had to go through a security check to be allowed into the Square itself.

Crossing the River Tiber

Moments after clearing security, we realised that with it being midday on the first Sunday of the month, the Pope was about to make an appearance on the balcony to say a blessing. This was a completely unexpected coincidence and we stayed to watch him address the crowd.

The Pantheon

With the square being so busy, we abandoned plans to stick around after to visit St Peter’s Basilica and instead walked from Vatican City back to Rome past Castel Sant’Angelo and across the Tiber River. On my first visit to the city, I had taken a river cruise along the Tiber which had been included with my hop on/off bus ticket but had found there wasn’t really a lot to see.

Pistachio Tiramisu from Pompi

Today, there seemed to be kayaks and boats for hire along the riverside which would have been fun to take advantage of if we’d had more time! Instead, after crossing Ponte Sant’Angelo, we wandered the back streets of Rome ending up in the beautiful Piazza Navona. Despite being hungry for lunch, I had learned my lesson from a previous experience of sitting out in one of the restaurants in the Piazza only to be met with inferior food and a hefty charge for service and bread so instead, we found a side street with some quieter tucked away restaurants and had lunch there.

Twin churches in Piazza del Popolo
Above, and below, views from the Spanish Steps

Passing the Pantheon along the way, we joined the short queue for the temperature check to enter and had a quick walk around. We had walked into a few churches for a look around over the weekend and it was always worth it no matter how unassuming they looked from the outside!

Next stop was Pompi, a tiramisu store near the Spanish Steps which we had been assured sold the best tiramisu in Rome. We then wandered along Via del Corso for some last minute shopping and down to another pretty square, Piazza del Popolo, flanked by its twin churches, one of which had it’s doors open so we wandered in for a look around.

Realising we’d not yet climbed the Spanish Steps despite passing them more than any other sight over the course of the weekend, we walked back to rectify this and visit the Trinità dei Monti church at the top. On my first visit to Rome, I had walked from here along to Villa Borghese, a huge and extremely pretty park with landscaped gardens, sculptures, museums and a boating lake and I was disappointed that we didn’t have time to walk there today.

The church at the top of the Spanish Steps, and below, walking from the top of the Spanish Steps to Villa Borghese on a previous visit

Instead, we found another back street bar for drinks before catching the metro to Cavour and walking to the Monti area. It was early Sunday evening by now and the cafes and bars in the area were already busy with tourists and locals out for drinks and aperitivo. We had drinks from Antigallery bar, where we were given complimentary tortilla chips and popcorn to munch on as we sat out in Piazza degli Zingari then moved down to Grazie a Dio è venerdi bar where we got a delicious pizza with every 2 drinks!

After seeing an almost constant queue at the neighbouring Fata Morgana gelateria, we decided to sample some for ourselves. The store offered some of the most unusual ice cream flavours I’d seen and while I enjoyed my scoops of chocolate chip gelato and Nutella swirl gelato, it wasn’t quite up there with the ice cream from Gelateria La Romana the day before.

The Colosseum at night

We finished our evening with a walk back to the Colosseum to see it lit up at night before retracing our steps from our first day’s sightseeing to grab photos of the illuminated Vittorio Emanuele II Monument and Trevi Fountain. Then it was time to wave goodbye to Rome’s city centre and ride the metro back to our hotel one last time before catching our flight back to Birmingham early the next day.

Despite the mandatory face coverings and general restrictions with travelling amid a global pandemic, our city break in Rome had felt like a breath of fresh air and a taste of normality in what has been a far from normal year. I certainly had my reservations about going ahead with our trip despite Italy remaining on the UK’s travel corridor list but if anything, my experience has made me more likely to plan similar breaks and, where possible, travel as I would usually.

Have you had any experiences of travelling on holidays or city breaks during the pandemic? Let me know in the comments!

Puglia: Italy’s Best Kept Secret?

Exploring Puglia and Basilicata, 2 lesser visited regions of Italy

Altamura’s Corso leading to the town gates

Italy is, without a doubt, my favourite European country to visit. I’ll never forget my first visit, taking a city break to Rome, my breath taken away each time I turned a corner only to be met by more beautiful buildings or ancient ruins.

Since then, I’ve been to many of the main cities and tourist destinations there – Milan, Lake Garda, Florence, Venice, Bologna, Naples and the Amalfi Coast…but when my friend moved to the country to take up a teaching position in a small town in the South, it gave me the opportunity to explore a lesser known part of this beautiful country.

My friend had moved to the town of Altamura which lies in the region of Puglia, known in English as Apulia, sitting in the ‘heel’ of Italy’s ‘boot’. To get there, I flew to Bari, the principle city of the area. Bari is mainly known for its port. It is possible to catch the ferry from here to a variety of other European countries including Greece and Croatia as well as there being a number of cruises departing from here. As the one of only 2 cities in the region with an, albeit small, international airport, it is also seen as the gateway to the stunning coastline of this part of Italy.

While I would spend time exploring the city of Bari during my visit to the region, today, after arriving early and with the rest of the day to spare, my friend was taking me to her favourite nearby seaside town, Polignana a Mare. For a small fee, I dropped my suitcase at Bari station’s left luggage and we hopped on a local train for the 50 minute ride down the coast.

Polignano a Mare

Beautiful sea views at Polignano a Mare
Cala Porto beach flanked by cliffs

Polignano a Mare is a charming seaside town perched on a cliff overlooking the Adriatic Sea. We walked through the winding, narrow streets, visiting some of the small boutique gift shops along the way to the clifftop viewpoint offering beautiful views across the bright, blue sea. Looking back towards the town, we could see the small, white pebble beach of Cala Porto below.

Looking back at Cala Porto beach form the clifftop and below, enjoying an afternoon at Polignano a Mare

After drinks at one of the many cafe bars in the town, we took a stroll down to the beach enjoying the late afternoon sunshine before walking back to the station and returning to Bari.

Altamura

The cathedral in Altmura

From Bari, it was another 90 minute train journey on the local train to Altamura where my friend had a small apartment on the outskirts of the town. The following day, she took me on a tour of the area starting with a walk through the city gates onto the ‘Corso’ – the main street running through the medieval town. Along here, lies the beautiful Altamura Cathedral dating back to the 13th century.

After looking around the cathedral, we walked through the maze of back streets leading off the Corso to a small bakery at the Santa Chiara Monastery where we bought some traditional Altamura cakes. Tette delle monache – which literally translates as “nun’s breasts”! – are soft, filled cakes.

Pastries and cakes at the bakery

We tried one filled with nutella and one filled with pistacchio and went to sit in the park o the edge of the city to eat them before having a further wander around the town.

Meeting the baker!

Altamua is famous for its bread, so much so that it is often referred to as the ‘City of Bread’, so I couldn’t spend the day there without trying some. The bread, ‘Pane di Altamura DOP’ is baked in a ‘forno antico’ or antique oven, the oldest of which, Forno Antico Santa Chiara, dates back to 1423.

Visiting the Archaeological Museum

We looked inside the bakery to meet the baker and watch the bread being placed into the oven to bake before taking a seat out in the courtyard and ordering a selection of bread and cheese dishes for lunch.

That afternoon, we took a stroll to the National Archaeological Museum of Altamura. This small museum had a range of exhibits showing its collection of artefacts from the area dating back thousands of years. There was also an interesting exhibition on the ‘Man of Altamura’, the fossil of a neanderthal man found in a nearby cave.

The Cathedral at night and above, locals stroll up and down the Corso in the busy evenings

That evening, we returned to Altamura’s Corso which was now bustling with life as the locals visited the many shops, cafes and bars lining the street or paraded up and down the street deep in conversation with their family and friends. We called into a local restaurant for a delicious pizza.

Pizza!
Nutella filled croissants for breakfast

We began the next day with a ‘cornetti’ breakfast at Stile Libero, a cafe on the outskirts of town – possibly the best nutella filled pastry I had ever tasted! Then we walked the short distance to Altamura station to catch the train out to the city of Matera.

Matera

Spectacular view – my first glimpse of Matera’s sassi
A busy main square in Matera, and below, exploring the city

Matera is actually just across the border of Puglia, in the region of Basilicata. After a 40 minute train journey from Altamura, we arrived in the ‘new’ part of town and took the short walk down to the historic centre. The main square at the entrance to the centre was flanked by a variety of restaurants, cafes and tourist information centres all of which we initially bypassed to walk to the nearby viewpoint over Matera’s ‘Sassi’.

The Sassi di Matera, is made up of two districts of the city built into the caves. Once known for its poverty and slums, the area has been regenerated over the last few decades with Unesco declaring it a World Heritage site in 1993.

Exploring Matera

The first view of the ‘Sassi’ is absolutely breath-taking. Before going to explore further, we signed up for a tour of Matera’s Underground. We booked the tour at one of the tourist information booths in the square and had only a short wait until the next English-speaking tour. The tour was quite short and once down in Matera’s underground, there wasn’t a lot to see but it was interesting to hear about how the city overcame difficulties in supplying water to its residents and seeing parts of the system used.

Taking a walking tour of Matera

After dinner at a cafe bar in the main centre, I took a walking tour of the Sassi. This was a great way to see the area and learn about its past. As part of the tour we visited a ‘casa grotta’ reconstruction to see a cave dwelling which had been set up as it would have been when it was once lived in by large families 60 years or more ago and the tour also allowed us entry into some parts of the Sassi only accessible on a tour including an old church built into the caves.

Another beautiful view over Matera

Matera is a great place to just wander around and it is easy to lose yourself in the winding maze of streets built into the caves. There a are a variety of museums, galleries and churches to explore in the city and we visited a photography exhibition that we just happened to stumble upon as we walked through the city as well as taking a look inside the Cathedral of Saint Mary della Bruna and Saint Eustace.

Bari

A table with a view and, below, more views along the waterfront

We took another trip out of Altamura the next day, this time, back to the region’s capital, Bari. Bari is a charming Italian port on the Adriatic Sea and we began our visit with a stroll along the waterfront and along the old city walls stopping for drinks overlooking the sea.

Strolling by the city walls

The highlight of our visit to Bari was a walk around its Old Bari or Bari Vecchia with its maze of narrow streets winding past medieval buildings and opening out into busy squares and courtyards.