With my glorious seven days in the land of wine, pasta and gelato behind me (and a Global Studies midterm in a few hours that I don’t really want/need to study for), I think it’s time to write about my experiences with the sights and flavors of Italia!
All I have to say is that I’m glad that I’m traveling the way I am and that I am now heading towards another new and exciting place (Croatia on Thursday!) because otherwise, leaving Italy would be one of the most depressing things I’ve ever had to do. In just seven short days, I became completely enamored with the entire country (or at least what I saw of it) and still have enough left to see that it is without hesitation that I can say I will need to go back at least twice more in my lifetime. Let’s start with what I did see though before getting into what I missed and need to return for.
Maybe it was because I was still preoccupied with all the excitement of Spain or exhaustion from only having one day in between ports, but it really didn’t sink in that I was actually going to Italy until we got there. I was excited, just like everyone else on the ship during Italy Day, which was the day between ports that was dedicated to different seminars the professors give about Italy, but it just hadn’t hit me.
The ship cleared, we got off, headed into Civitavecchia (which we had been advised to leave as soon as possible) and bee-lined for the train station and caught the first train to Rome for our day of being touristy. Brittany, Margaret and I started wandering the city in search of a real Italian lunch, which we definitely found. Probably the best lasagna I’ve ever eaten in my life (get used to the extensive talk about food, I could write a whole blog just on what I’ve eaten on this trip) and a glass of wine. (Advice to anyone that ever goes to Italy – never spend more than 3 euro on a glass of wine. You don’t need to. The house wines are usually better than anything else because it’s all locally grown anyway and way cheaper.) So after lunch we start wandering in search of a map to start finding the attractions of Rome. Well, we never found a map – but we happened to run into the Colosseum! (Which made it kind of unnecessary to find a map anymore.) That led us to the Ancient Roman Forum ruins, the Trevi Fountain (yes, I made a wish and threw a coin in) and the Spanish Steps. Just the pure amount of history and age of most of the city makes Rome such an incredible place. Although as a modern city, it really wasn’t my favorite. The heat made it simply unbearable to be a tourist and the city really has been built on top of the historical monuments so you can appreciate the sites but then they’re surrounded by shops and hotels and buildings, which personally I think took away from it. But I still loved it. We headed back to the ship Tuesday night because all three of us had early trips the next morning, but we met the most interesting Brazilian guy on the train (who actually lived in Ireland). I think that hour train ride was the coolest part of the day because of our conversation with him – we got to learn a lot about his culture as well as his perception of ours and he had a lot of interesting questions that made us think about the way we do things as Americans. It’s those kinds of experiences that make me just love traveling - the interactions with such different types of people that teach you so much.
Day 2: SIENA. One of the most beautiful, quaint little cities I’ve ever seen. We had a real privilege to be welcomed into the churches and preparation houses of one of the seventeen contrada (or neighborhoods of Siena) in preparation for Il Palio, the traditional annual summer festival where the different contrada compete in a horse race. There’s so much more to it and we got to learn a lot about it from the locals actually (although I unfortunately didn’t get to be there for the festival itself). I absolutely loved Siena though because it didn’t have the touristy feel of so many of the bigger cities, like Barcelona and Rome. The people were so kind and welcoming and the sights of the city were breathtakingly beautiful, especially at night when everything was lit up. There were certain places on the edge of town that overlook the countryside of Tuscany – I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so beautiful. I definitely want to go back to Siena.
Day three, I met up with Brittany and Margaret again in Florence, where I probably could’ve spent a week by itself. It, like Siena, had a much smaller-town feel to it that made us feel much less like tourists. We even took a chance and ended up finding an adorable old hotel that ended up being cheaper than most of the hostels and definitely more fun to stay in (maybe just for the free breakfast and the TV in the room which used to watch Ten Things I Hate About You… in Italian). We didn’t have a lot of time in Florence but we saw the famous bridge as well as the replica of Michelangelo’s David which was one of the things we really wanted to see. Other than that, we just wandered around and enjoyed the city, did some shopping, chatted with some locals, enjoyed dinner at a family owned restaurant (again, absolutely incredible food and dirt cheap wine that’s better than anything I’ve ever tasted in California). The next morning, before heading to Rome, we wanted to go look at a few more shops and wander around some more and found to our surprise that everything was closed due to a huge protest against the Prime Minister. I think watching the workers and families in the streets with their signs and horns and seeing the way they protest against their government for something they believe is wrong (and comparing the similarities and differences of how people protest in the US) was again one of the experiences that I value more than seeing tourist attractions. We were fascinated by how unified they all were (literally EVERY shop was shut down) and we really enjoyed talking to a few locals who were standing outside shops out of the way of the main road who spoke English who told us a lot of what was going on. But after awhile, we realized there wasn’t anything left for us to see or do, so we decided to head to Rome early.
So Day 4 was more of a travel day…Florence in the morning, Rome in the evening. Brittany and Margaret had to catch the ship back in Civitavecchia to travel with it to Naples, but I had told the ship I wasn’t coming back that night so I met up with Jackie, Kristen, Rachel, Serena, and Megan and had dinner and went out later that night with them. For being the only night we went to bars/clubs in Italy, it sure was an interesting night. We went to a bar that we’d heard about called the Drunken Ship (haha I know, but we had to) and watched the Ghana-Uruguay World Cup game… I don’t think I’ve ever been that excited about soccer, but we all kinda got wrapped up with the excitement and the crowd with all the locals… too bad everyone was cheering for Ghana, but those at the end penalty shots were pretty intense. Definitely a fun experience, if not much one that felt very Italian. I guess Italians love their soccer though right?
Day 5 I got to do something I have wanted to do since I was a little girl. I finally got to visit Vatican City. St. Peter’s Square was just like I imagined, except somehow it looks much bigger in pictures. I liked it better in person though…how close and intimate it felt, and how big it was but how much grander it felt regardless of the size. I literally got chills walking into St. Peter’s Basilica. I knew a lot of how it looked, mainly because my family watches Christmas Midnight Mass celebrated there on TV every Christmas Eve (even last year at 2am when we got home from our own Midnight Mass), but being there in person just made me really want to see Christmas Midnight Mass in person one year. (Catie and Joey- I got Mom to agree that we’ll do it one year, help me hold her to that!!) The Basilica was huge and every little piece of art was so particularly planned and beautifully crafted and designed with a distinct purpose. I could go into much more detail, but like I was telling Mom when I called home on Sunday, it’s something you just can’t put into words (which is my excuse for coming back with Mom, so I can show her). We didn’t get to see the Sistine Chapel, which again just is another reason I have to come back, but the Basilica is really what I wanted to see so I wasn’t too upset. The Vatican Museums are just going to have to wait for my next trip to Rome. After not being able to get into the Sistine Chapel though (we weren’t going to wait 3 hours in the sweltering heat of Rome for five minutes inside), we decided to settle for a place we were told has the best gelato in Italy by our inter-port student from Italy. So we stopped at Old Bridge, got a chocolate gelato and headed for the train toward Naples.
Now when you think of all the cities in Italy, Naples is one of the ones you hear about… but I can’t figure out for the life of me why. It was a terrible city to make port in because if that’s the first thing you see of a country, most people wouldn’t get off the ship. It was dirty, felt really sketchy, it smelled awful, and I felt unsafe just in the cab ride from the train station to our ship at the port. Granted, ports are usually not the most beautiful part of a city, but Naples was definitely the worst we’ve seen yet. Fortunately, we didn’t plan to spend our last two days in Italy spending much time there!
Sunday morning (Day 6) we were all up bright and early to take a ferry to the island of Capri. It was absolutely beautiful, but from the moment I got on the island I felt like I’d been there before and I couldn’t figure out why. It didn’t hit me till mid-afternoon when I was lounging on the beach by the boats that the island is literally the spitting image of Catalina Island off the coast of California, where I spent a weekend back in May. I still loved the island, and it did have its differences (like taking the chair-lift to the very top of the island, the homemade pizza and the shoe shops where they literally make shoes and you can custom order them and have them fitted to your foot, which I still am wishing I had done). But by the end of the day, I was ready to go back to my boat.
The last day was actually pretty uneventful after the morning, but I guess the fact that we hiked a volcano before noon still qualifies it as a successful day in port. We woke up at the crack of dawn, got a hearty breakfast and headed out to hike the famous Mount Vesuvius that destroyed the city of Pompeii in the year 79 A.D. The mountain itself wasn’t too bad of a hike, but the history of it and the crater at the top made it a really amazing experience (besides the fact that we can all say we hiked the active volcano that is responsible for the most deathly eruptions in history). They say if it erupted today (which it is overdue for by about 13 years), it would result in over 8000 fatalities and 13000 injuries (yes, I did wait until now to let Mom know that little detail… until after I had already done it and survived).
So we got back to the ship about noon with just a minor battle wound from the mountain. I took a little tumble near the bottom hiking back down because I was preoccupied with getting out of the way of a little old lady who probably shouldn’t be hiking anything much less Vesuvius… and I lost my footing and scraped up my leg. (Yes, I fell going DOWN the mountain… is anyone surprised? Probably not.) So we got back, took showers, naps and studied a little for the Global Studies midterm and then headed to the pool deck for our Fourth of July BBQ! Now any SAS alumni will tell you wonderful things about the crew… they’re amazing. We are so spoiled by these people who work so hard to make our time on the ship comfortable and clean, but I had never heard of their BBQ skills. It was fantastic. Who knew you could get a whole spread of burgers, ribs, corn on the cob, and chocolate cake for American Independence Day when you’re on a ship in Italy? So we spent our last three hours or so looking out at the kind of ugly landscape of Naples, Italy and celebrating our American patriotism. Kind of ironic, but a great time nonetheless and a great way to wrap up an amazing week in Italy.
Standing on the top deck as the ship was pulling out of the port of Naples last night and watching Italy shrink away in the distance, I had to remind myself that I can’t be disappointed by not seeing everything I wanted to see. Italy is a large country with positively endless opportunities and I would need much more time than I have in any given country on this voyage to experience the whole thing. But that’s also one of the joys of Semester at Sea – it’s a sampler platter! It gives us a little taste of several different cultures, makes us fall in love with each one in a different way and instills the desire to go back to the places we love most to learn more and see everything.
When I go back to Italy one day I still need to see a few things: Venice, Verona and Milan in Northern Italy, the Sistine Chapel and the Pantheon in Rome, Sorrento and Pompeii (the city destroyed by my volcano!) and as much more of Tuscany as I can see (and I still need to go wine tasting)! I don’t think I’d ever dislike anything in Italy (except maybe Naples, but they invented pizza so I can’t hate on them too much) so I’m open to see anything.
So that was Italy. Seven Days. Rome, Siena, Florence, Vatican City, Capri and Vesuvius. No big deal right? Just a typical Semester at Sea week.
And in less than 48 hours… we will make port in Dubrovnik, Croatia where I will also get to see Bosnia and Montenegro. Three countries in four days. Again… just a typical weekend around here!
Ciao from the Mediterranean along the Italian Coast!