8 Things you need to know about Italy
It was 4 in the morning when the alarm went off. I was over the blankets, lifting my head up from the tiny pillow I dragged under my cheeks just a little time ago, remembering I had fallen asleep already dressed for the long drive ahead of us.
It was still dark outside while I brushed my teeth and took the last pieces of luggage to my car. I wasn't tired at all. The few hours I got shut eye have been more than enough. My body was living on a different kind of fuel, a more ecstatic one, build out of curiosity and a deep craving for adventure.
Our American experience did teach us this: we love to travel by car. There is no other way to be so independent, spontaneous and comfortable all at once. We never even looked up flight tickets, because we already knew what we were going for.
And so it started. Two paper cups filled with boiling coffee later and we were already getting comfy in the intimacy of my black Alfa Romeo, holding hands whenever there was no need to shift the gears.
The trip had made our summer. There's no doubt to it.
As soon as we were there, we already knew these were times that we'll always come back to in the future. Things we'll love to remember late at night, up until we'll get old.
Italy has amazed me with so much beauty, it's almost hard to describe. It's a type of wild beauty, not the curated one. It's the greens that grow in the ancient walls, the tiny streets that have seen the foot of thousands of generations, the history and culture, the fashion scene and the lively people, all in one they are a rare mixture of everything I find beautiful in the world, all in one shoe-shaped country.
We've seen Trieste, Venice, Verona, Parma, Bologna, Livorno, Pisa, Florence and Rome, but we also stopped along the way to visit remote beaches or small villages, like the Tuscan Tenuta Mocajo or the cliff-top Monzuno.
I didn't want to take you in all the little details we've noticed, but rather to draw a few strong lines on what have been the things we noticed above all. If you haven't been to Italy yet, I also added a few tips here and there, that you should take in mind.
.. let's get to it!
Venice is the most beautiful city in Europe. period.
I just had to tell you this. I had to!
The thing that surprised me the most about Venice, is the fact that nobody has ever told me just how incredibly amazing it is. As you can see, I'm not planning on letting that happen to you.
Sure, people have brought it up in random conversations, but you can not just talk about Venice like any other place!
You have to stop, take a deep breath, imagine the sunlight lighting up the canals in delicate pink shades at dawn and then talk about Venice like you really mean it! Damn it!
I strongly suggest you take a few days to spend in the floating city. While you can finish it off by foot in less than 2 hours ( locals will manage in 45minutes), I feel you can't really grasp the magic of the place if you rush it off.
Venice, like most of what I've seen of Italy, is a place to indulge in. You have to learn to relax and let it sink in. You'll find the more you look, the more you'll see.
The whole city is like a huge labyrinth, with a surprise at almost every corner. It's the type of place you love to get lost in and you probably will.
The streets get so narrow sometimes, you have to tilt your shoulders a bit to fit properly. If you look up at the buildings, windows and doors, or even at the hanging wet sheets over your head, you can already imagine what type of people live behind those historical walls.. and what kind of amazing lives they must be having.
Family owned restaurants are to be found in the most surprising places. With food so tasteful you can almost smell the grinned parmigiano cheese on top of the home made pasta.
My mouth is watering already.
There's so much beauty in the architecture and so much poetry in the fact that it's entirely over water, that it fascinated me with despair.
The traditional crafts are also a thing of art over here and so is shopping! You can enjoy a fine selection of Venetian masks, Murano glass jewelry, chandeliers or gold rimmed frizzante glasses, Burano lace umbrellas, accessories and so much more.
This is a place for lovers. You can spot artists painting the wildly romantic canals at sunset in front of the Doge's Palace. The instrumental music in St. Marco's Square brings out the butterflies in any couple. You can spot people at all ages, starting to dance in the magic of the evening, in the middle of the square, like no one is watching.
Because of the canals that pass through it, Venice is packed with more than 400 bridges. My lover had made a rule for us, to follow each and every time we come back to the city that had stolen my heart: to kiss every time we cross a bridge.
You can imagine we kissed our way through to the Grande Canal, where we had the best panna cotta there is, then continued our way, stopping to enjoy every kiss on every bridge that had crossed our path.
TIP: If you ever travel to Venice with your loved one, make a rule like ours.
If you're not as much for PDA like we are, just promise to tell the other person something you like about them or something you'd like them to know about you.
I think it's these little games that make a romantic trip truly unforgettable.
The biennale is the place to be
Ever since 1895, every year a part of Venice becomes a miniature translation of the world's countries, either in art or in architecture.
Giardini and Arsenale, the garden and the former shipyard in the historical city, host an international Art exhibition every two years. In between comes the architecture and design exhibition, of the same prestige. Countries build pavilions where they celebrate culture in every form, combining tradition, knowledge and technology, with ethics and art.
It is such an amazing place to be, especially if you're an art lover or architecture enthusiast!
In our case, Andrei is studying architecture and is truly passionate by his field, so he introduced me to the Venice Biennale.
I generally appreciate good design and innovation, but the experience was so much more than just good ideas and pretty buildings.
It raised cultural and political questions, it made us rethink our mind sets, our values, our tastes. It showcased how humanity had come up with solutions for so many of our problems.
It was by far the biggest celebration of human kind I have ever witnessed. When we finally stopped for a cup of coffee in the midst of our tour, we both felt our society has gone a long way to do such incredible things and that, sadly, we take it all for granted.
TIP: La Biennale di Venezia is open for guests from the beginning of May to the midst of November, so you have plenty of time to book a trip in advance. You can spend two whole days there, a ticket is 15 euro, but you won't manage to see it all. I suggest you take some more time if you enjoy arts. Also, it isn't only about art, design and architecture, the biennial brings music, cinema, dance and theater in the city too, with major events happening all over Venice.
TIP: For a more affordable accommodation, I suggest you find a neat place in Mestre, which is right next to Venice. It's only about 10-15minutes by bus to get there and the prices are about half for the night.
The Gellato is Ah-mazing
" Dear, is it gellato time yet? " I asked, trembling in front of the mountains of tall ice cream, climbing above their container in wave-like shapes, with strawberries, coconut bits, crunchy nuts or melted dark chocolate smothered on top.
Fragola, Nociolla, Straciatella, Ciocolata Fondante, which will it be?
Everybody warned me about the ice cream in Italy and darn, were they right!
It is incredibly tasty, creamy and intense.
Plenty of flavors to chose from and most of them are home-made, preserving typical Italian recipes.
TIP: While there are hundreds of Gellaterias with ice cream roaring in the show-window, where the dunes of gellato will just blow you away, you should try to not let yourself be fooled. Of course, the visual effect does change most of the experience, but try to taste the gellato that isn't in plain sight and show cased.
If they don't have a show case and keep the gellato in steal containers, the chances are, you've hit the jackpot. For the flavors to keep their strength without any additives, they need to be kept in a very cold environment, without air contact.
The ice cream you'll get will be even better, no matter if you crave a milky base, a chocolaty one or a fruity sorbet.
Food is never just Food
Italian people like to ritualize their meals. They gather up with family or friends, even neighbors or strangers, to grab a meal together. It's always more than just the food. It's the discussion about the food. It's the cravings that they have and they follow without remorse. The pleasure of cooking, the selection of fresh and quality ingredients, that make the simplest recipes a bouquet of flavors.
And of course, the sharing.
They eat out a lot too. You can spot them talking loudly, pairing their meal with the right type of red wine, dinning in the shade.
TIP: If you love food just as much as we do, I'd say you must try anything that says "artigianale". They have everything from craft beer, pastry or pizza, giving the recipe a little twist. You also have to eat at the mercato (market) or the grocer's! That's where things get local.
Most of the small down the block grocery stores also serve warm foods or traditional cold dishes, that you can eat right there, at a high table .
That's where you can get really Italian.
You can just pick out a bunch of different dishes and mix and match, so you can try as many town-specific foods as possible.
On our trip, in a little city called Parma, we organized our own little pasta tasting event in a grocer's, where we picked out a pesto lasagna, funghi ravioli with truffle sauce, gnocchi and another few types of meals, in tiny portions. We were mind blown.
( I know what you're thinking! Yeah, we gained a few extra pounds, but the satisfaction totally overruled the guilt. )
Tuscany is worth a visit.. or more
We've seen many parts of Italy in our trip, but a definitive highlight was our stay in the Tuscan country side.
Tuscany has it all. Agriculture, fashion, tourism, art - not really a wonder, since the massive breakthroughs of the Renaissance took place in Florence, the capital of the region. Oh, and what a priceless city, Firenze!
But that's not all, the other cities in the region are stunners and have a unique character too. The landscape is blessed with both beaches on the Thyrennian Sea, the Appenine mountains and Chianti’s olive groves and vineyards.
While cities are thrilling and have a special kind of buzz, the countryside offers simple pleasures, like horse back riding, cooking, wine tasting, bird watching, hiking or meditating.
But Tuscany doesn't quite compare to any country side places I've ever seen. Almost all hills have majestic farmhouses on top, with a view over the the neighbor Tuscan hills. Most of them have a pool too.
The horizon is so breathtakingly beautiful, you can just stop right there and stare for a few hours in a row, imagining how life used to be in a lost world.
TIP: Most farmhouses are restored and rented out. You can easily find and book a room in one of them, by searching on this website: http://www.agriturismo.it/en - that's how we found our Agriturissimo, called Tenuta Mocajo.
there's no coffee like Italian coffee
Even Starbucks knows that! That's why there's no Starbucks Cafe in whole Italy.
I couldn't see it anywhere and found it rather odd, so I googled it and got the answer. It turns out the founder of the chain was inspired by the Italians and their ritualized coffee related behavior. He stole most of the concept from the family owned cafes of Milan. Remember the name of the sizes? Grande, Venti - yup, all Italian.
He figured he can't beat the master of coffee in it's own game, so out of respect and for obvious economical reasons, they never opened one single cafe in the whole country, being probably one of the very few European countries to doge the American cafe phenomenon.
Nonetheless, Italians probably wouldn't even like the watery Americanized coffee Starbucks has to sell. Their coffee is rich and intense, generally skipping on the additional flourishments like tiny marshmallows or caramel cream. Like almost everything else about these people, they like thing raw, especially when it comes to flavors.
We had a few coffees a day, everyday, while on our trip. We acted like Italians, drinking it hot, standing next to the bar, trying to chat with the barista. It was an absolute delight.
Aperol Spritz is literally everywhere!
Talking about drinks, one of the things I couldn't get my eyes off were the crisp cold glasses, with frizzy Aperol Spritz, that you could spot at almost every terrace, on almost every table.
While this is one of my favorite drinks back home, I had no idea it was an Italian thing.
Then again, for some reason, it tasted way better on the peninsula. Especially with a fat, juicy olive to enjoy at the end.
TIP: You can make Aperol Spritz at home, it's super easy. All you need is a 1/3 Aperol, 1/3 Prosseco and 1/3 sparkling water. Squirt a little orange on top, add a few ice cubes and a big slice of the orange. The olive is optional, but I wouldn't miss it.
Road trips are perfect for Italy
I can't tell you enough how happy I am we decided to skip on the plain and take on the adventure of going south by car.
From Romania to Italy is a long journey, so we slept a night in Ljubljana. I'm not saying you should go all the way with your own car, because of course, you can rent one out there, but if you could, it's really cool.
For non-drivers, there's always the Italian trains that will take you from one city to another, so you can make a round trip of the country, from the west coast down and up the east coast back.
The only down side to traveling by train is that they're mostly late, but if you have good company or just a laid back attitude, it may sometimes work in your favor! Make sure you carry a language learning book in your purse ( like I did ) and study a few things whenever you have a minute. It's so useful and entertaining at the same time, you won't regret it.
Now, just think about it, if you travel by car you get to see a handful of different places, with the budget you'd generally only use in one city. The spaces between Italian cities is never longer than 2-3 hours drive, if you plan on going to more than just touristy Rome and Florence. I promise you'll get the most out of your trip if you take time to see more of what Italy is like for locals, rather than tourists.
TIP: What you should know though, is that the highway fees are pretty high in Italy ( click HERE for an app to calculate the taxes ) and that there are ZTL spaces where you can't enter by car. If you pay attention to the signs, you won't have any problems. Just don't let the GPS drag you in the city center of towns like Rome or Florence, because you'll probably get a fine. We did that in Verona, when we parked right next to the Colosseum, which was stupidity at it's best. We're still waiting to get the fine in mail, but we might get lucky!
TIP: You can look for accommodation when you arrive, to keep the trip as spontaneous as possible, but if you'd rather have a bit of structure to your vacation, you can easily plan your whole trip with one amazing website. It helps you schedule, book and plan everything! It even gives you some insight on the main attractions, so you know if it's worth a stop. Look it up, I promise it's so easy to use and so fun to personalize that you'll never get tired of planning trips with it. Here's the link: routeperfect.com