Part 5: Italy
10 days driving from the top of the boot all the way down to the heel (the most northern parts are still to come).
Italy is not the easiest country to road trip in with risky roads everywhere you turn. The driving can be a little crazy (not driving in lanes, crossing on double solid lines while a car is coming in the other direction, cars without headlights at night, not stopping at stop signs or red lights, high speeds even in very poor conditions, you have to prepare for everything) and the roads are not very well put together (potholes in every road, even the main roads, partially sealed roads that are worse than unsealed ones, zero water drainage so surface flooding even on motorways after only a little rain, once again you have to prepare for everything).
Aside from the difficult roads it is also tricky to visit cities and even smaller towns, not because of traffic but because of ZTLs (limited traffic zones). In every big city as well as most smaller ones there are areas that it is prohibited to drive within (unless with a specific pass). This is great as it means when you are in the city you can explore all the streets by foot without the noise, pollution and danger of cars. However it does make it a bit of a mission if you do have one. The restricted areas are not always well demarcated, and if you enter they have cameras that take a picture of your number plate and send you a 100€ fine in the mail. Not the easiest system with a car. The idea is great though I think.
Parking is also pretty tricky. Everywhere you go parking is insanely expensive, even out of main centers, especially anywhere near a tourist attraction (we once had to pay 5.50€ per hour in Portofino). They also make it quite difficult for tourists to pay for parking near some centers by not having any pay machines and instead having a parking system where you have to call in to pay for your park. If you don’t have international minutes, or don’t speak Italian, or both, it can be pretty impossible to pay for your parking. Supposedly the streets are also monitored by security cameras so taking the risk and not paying is more of a risk than normally.
Expect to pay for everything. Not just parking, but entrance to public parks, cathedrals, toilets (without toilet paper or soap) and even towns (in reference to Civita di Bagnoregio). Free attractions are near impossible to find which was a bit of a challenge for us low-budget travellers. Even when you think you are very far off the beaten track there will be a person in a booth charging an entry fee. You have to make choices early about what is worth the money for the whole duration of the trip.
Overall not the easiest place to road trip, however the further south we went the more traveller friendly we found it with better roads, a more relaxed atmosphere, less paid attractions and ironically less travellers. The Puglia region especially was a perfect travelling location, and it seems very few people think to go down that far.
- The ruins of Pompeii are incredible to see. After the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius the town was buried in ash for centuries. The town you see is exactly the same as it was during the eruption. There are even cement casts of people in the exact position they were in at the time of the eruption.
- Stunning area hidden off the main tourist routes. The coast is spotted with caves, tranquil port towns, beautiful beaches and some great walking paths. Two top areas of note were The Cave of Poetry and Porto Salvaggo Regional Park.
Hiking Cinque Terre
- A really beautiful hike along the coast of Cinque Terre, through the beautiful villages with coloured houses perched up on the hillside. Unfortunately it is packed with tourists and a section of the hike you need to pay for but it was still a stunning place to visit.
Cattedrale di Santa Maria, Florence
- The main cathedral in Florence is an enormous and beautiful work of renaissance architecture. It’s something that has to be seen to believe. Walking around Florence itself you can find dozens of beautiful buildings around every corner. You’ll also find long lines and lots of tourists in every street but that doesn’t take away from its beauty.
St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City
- Everybody talks about the roof of the Sistine Chapel being the highlight of the Vatican City, however for us it was St. Peter’s Basilica. The museums and the chapel are definitely well worth the visit, but don’t forget about this gem as well. High ceilings with detailed sculptures and artworks on all of the walls, the building is a stunning piece of art.
- Rome is a massive city so walking around all of the sights is a decent workout but well worth it. The Colosseum and Roman Forum are amazing sights, but also beautiful cathedrals with ceilings that challenge the Sistine Chapel can be found down the small streets.
Province of Salerno
- With the well known Amalfi Coast in the north, stunning coastal walks in the south and beautiful rolling hills in the center the whole region is worth spending a decent chunk of time exploring. Truly stunning.
- Little hillside town in the Puglia region. The old town is full of bleached white houses and some beautiful old architecture spotted throughout. When we were there on the weekend the place was alive with locals wandering the streets and sitting in the main square. We got a great vibe from this place.
- Little coastal town well off the beaten track. It does not have a train station so it is hidden from tourism. With a beach on one side, a port on the other, a castle and cathedral on the hillside, several great bars and restaurants in the center and surrounding beautiful mountains it is a spot with everything.
Day 33: Genova → Portofino → Chiavari → Levanto
We woke after our first night in Italy in the car looking out over the hills near Genova. Pitching the tent was a little risky up here so close to the city so the car was a good alternative for thrifty travelers like us.
We drove on down to Genova but it turns out parking here is quite a challenge for foreigners. There is only paid parking within a several kilometer radius of the city, and paying for parking is a challenge. If you find a park often you can’t find a ticket machine and instead have to call a number written next to the parks to pay, but without speaking Italian that’s pretty impossible (also apparently the parks on the street are monitored with security cameras so you can’t take the risk of not buying a ticket). So after a fair bit of driving we decided we saw enough last night and would push on to our next destination. But we first stopped at a tiny town just out of Genova on the coast – Boccadasse. Here there are a few small coloured houses with an outlook over the ocean, a bit of a sneak peak of what is to come further down the coast.
We arrived in Portofino around 9am and already it was increadibly busy. As we drove in we admired the surrounding hills, the ocean and the grand cliff faces overhanging the road. When we arrived in this tiny town everything got a bit crazy. There is one parking area that you pay 5.50€ (just under NZ$10) for the first hour you are parked and increasing prices for every hour after that. Affordable parks are around an hours walk away, so we decided to restrict ourselves to 1 hour, and to be honest we wouldn’t have wanted to stay any longer. It’s a pretty place, but it’s a tourist trap. The tiny streets were packed full of tourists and to be honest I don’t understand why there are so many. It is pretty, but definitely not a highlight. An hour was enough anyway before we left to find a less touristy spot to chill.
Just south of Portofino we found Chiavari which was just what we needed. Quite a big place but with a quiet relaxed atmosphere, and some cool spots to see! There is a large marble cathedral and very Roman architecture (and minimal tourism). After a bit of a wander and some pesto tasting at the market we headed to the harbour for a beer by the water. There is even a little enclosed area by the beach where you can swim in warmer water. We enjoyed this spot a lot more than Portofino.
We headed off to Cinque Terre to camp for the night, ready for a day of hiking over the mountains and through the iconic postcard perfect villages (we hope!).
We set up the tent and headed into Levanto for sunset on the beach. Most of the beaches we have found around here have been stony beaches, but this one was pretty close to sand which made it a great spot to look out over the ocean. This area is also famous for its pesto so on the way back to the tent we got some Laval pesto to make pesto gnocchi for dinner. Perfect pre-hike meal!
Day 34: Levanto → Villages → Cinque Terre → Florence
Early rise this morning for a big day of hiking! We expected the hikes to be pretty easy given the amount of tourists that come to hike them each year, so we planned to hike the 19km from Levanto to Riomaggiore and hike the same trail on the way back to the car. The hike turned out to be a lot more challenging than expected, with several steep climbs, lots of stairs and in direct sunlight. The heat was a little unbearable, but the views were stunning. So in the end we just hiked one direction and took the train back.
The section of the hike between Monterosso and Corniglia you have to pay for which I think is a little bit of a trap as in all honesty I don’t think this was the most beautiful section. However charging for it clearly makes everyone else think that it is because this section is packed with tourists. We ended up having to walk at snail pace in a single file line as the trail was too narrow to pass anyone. The most beautiful part was instead between Corniglia to Manarola. You walk over the hills through vineyards in between two beautiful villages. The area here is definitely worth it’s hype, but it’s clearly not a secret hideout. Next time I think it would be better to commit at the beginning to hiking just one direction, take the longer and more difficult trails without the people and catch the train back at the end of the day. I think that would have made the experience perfect.
We stayed in Empoli for the night, a small town just out of Florence with free parking and train access into the city. Tomorrow will be our chance to explore the renaissance capital of the world.
Day 35: Florence → Lago Trasimeno
An amazing day of exploring Florence today! I think we were expecting just another big town, bit what we found was stunning. At every turn you would find a new piece of impressive renaissance architecture, the whole town is full of it, after all this is where it all began in the 14th century. The Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore was especially impressive. It is massive and beautifully put together. Quote from Elric – “I live in Europe so have seen a lot of amazing old churches, but nothing like this”. Photos just don’t so it justice.
It is very much a walking city as you are unable to enter the city by car unless you have a specific permit. It would be impossible to have it any other way with the amount of people there. So we parked for free in the streets of Empoli and caught the train in. With the huge amount of people it is pretty impossible to enter any attraction unless you want to wait an hour or more in a line, but just walking around the streets was impressive enough. And if you wanted to see something like the Statue of David there are many replicas around and several impressive marble statues in an open gallery next to Piazza della Signoria. Just walking around the city itself is like walking around an art gallery.
There was a beautiful lookout over the whole city at Piazzale Michelangelo. It really shows how massive the cathedral is. All of the surrounding buildings are several stories tall, but the cathedral towers over them all.
We were planning on heading to Pisa to see the iconic leaning tower, but it was a bit of a detour from where we were thinking of going next and from the sound of things it’s not the best spot with a car with lots of people talking about break-ins throughout the parking lots. So we decided to give it a miss and head south.
We drove off to Lago Trasimeno in the dark dodging animals, crazy drivers and large potholes the whole way. The roads are not the most well maintained here with tonnes of potholes even on the motorway. But we survived 😊
Day 36: Lago Trasimeno → Orvieto → Civita di Bagnoregio → Viterbo → Rome
Our first stop today was in Orvieto, a little village on a hill with some amazing spots to see. The first part of the town we explored was quiet and tranquil without a person in sight and with beautiful views over the countryside. We soon moved into an area with lots of great shopping and music playing from speakers throughout the old streets. Then we moved into an area with many religious monuments including an enormous cathedral with striped walls and a stunning facade. The buildings we have seen so far are absolutely stunning,
Just as about to leave a large group of kids carrying a cross and an USA flag came into the square outside the cathedral and started dancing around in circles and singing with a few on drums. I’m sure it was a sister school from USA or something but it was a bit freaky, felt a bit cult-ish and was very unexpected.
Our next stop was to Civita di Bagnoregio A very tiny village of around 10-15 people located on the top of a little hill. It is also known as the dying village because of its gradual destruction from earthquakes and floods. What we have found a little frustrating in Italy so far is how literally everything is charged for, things that would normally be free everywhere else. Free museums and galleries don’t exist, all big cathedrals you need to pay an entry fee, even public parks have an entry fee, some hikes as well and you often need to pay for toilets that have no toilet paper or hand-soap. But today we found a small but classic village that you couldn’t enter without an entry fee, not only this but the entry fee was nearly double because it was a public holiday. It was beautiful to see from the outside, but from what we have heard it is very commercialised inside. A bit of a shame, but oh well, the surrounding area was very beautiful. I just can imagine it being even more frustrating if you were an Italian wanting to explore your own country, or even your own city. It would be pretty hard financially.
Viterbo was our next stop, a random place chosen by looking randomly at destinations on the map close to our planned route for the day. As we first walked it the town didn’t seem too exciting, but the further we went in the more vibrant it became. It is an area full of locals rather than foreign tourists which is always a great thing to experience, and the day we can there just happened to be a flower show on so the streets were lined with beautiful plants. Once again just as we were about to leave a medieval marching band came down the streets with the musicians marching into the center with old medieval attire and large booming drums. We seem to be attracting the musicians today.
We stayed right next to Rome in an AirBnB for the night. I find it pretty crazy that AirBnB’s are often so much cheaper than camping, especially close to main centers where free camping is a bit of a risk. And at campsites here you generally do not get a whole lot, plus you get to meet locals and get insider knowledge.
Day 37: Rome → Tor San Lorenzo Lido
Today was the day for exploring the tiny country of the Vatican City, and the large Italian capital. We stayed parked out in a suburb which looked a bit dodge with all the rubbish and tiny apartments, but the people looked nice and parking was free so we though surely it was all good.
We aimed to get to the Vatican at 8am knowing that the lines are huge and it opens at 9am. Unfortunately we didn’t arrive until just after 8:30 and the line was already massive. We ended up waiting in the line for 2 hours before we could enter but we were really lucky to join the line just behind a kiwi couple! The first kiwis I we have met in Europe over the whole time we have been here! We chatted the whole time and time went pretty fast, and it was worth the wait. The Vatican museums may be packed full of tourists but they are absolutely stunning. The ceilings throughout are intricately painted and marble statues were everywhere you looked.
As we reached the Sistine Chapel you could notice the volume of the groups of people drop. You could tell that everybody was rushing through the museums to get here, but I really think they missed a lot on the way. We wouldn’t say the Sistine Chapel was the highlight and rather the areas throughout the museum, but it was cool how Michelangelo’s painting The Last Judgement became more and more 3D the longer you looked at it, and how the people depicted on the ceiling looked as if they were falling from the sky. We couldn’t take pictures inside but here is a picture from a smaller cathedral in the center of Rome, Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola, with potentially an even more spectacular ceiling and no people.
At the back of the Chapel there are two doors, one marked with exit and the other unmarked. This brilliant door took us to St. Peter’s Basilica, and meant we didn’t have to wait in another line for several hours and pay another entrance fee. This building is seriously something stunning. Huge ceilings, intricate designs on the walls and below you can find the burial place of several popes and St. Peter himself. A truly stunning place, can’t really find the words for it.
As we exited the Basilica we found ourselves in the center of Vatican City, the well known area where The Pope addresses the people. I never imagined I would step foot in such a place like this, it just feels like a place you only see on TV.
After spending half of the day exploring Vatican City we moved on to explore Rome. Unlike Florence where all the attractions are quite close together, everything is spread out in Rome, so by the end of the exploring we were pretty exhausted. But it was amazing to see such a city with so many iconic and historic monuments; the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Trevi Fountain and many other cathedrals and monuments that you could spend several days exploring them all in depth.
A couple of hours out of Rome we found a massive campground to spend the night in Tor San Lorenzo Lido. But before we went to bed we went down to the bar to watch the football, Rome vs. Liverpool, with the locals. Perfect end to the day.
Day 38: Tor San Lorenzo Lido → Sperlonga → Gaeta → Naples → Pompeii
This morning we found the nicest, and the cheapest bakery and pizza place of Italy so far. We stumbled upon a little cafe/bakery/pizzeria, Due Al Forno, as being the easiest place to grab a coffee and plan the day ahead, we didn’t expect to find this, and instead ended up staying for a couple of hours tasting a whole lot of things while doing some planning. Elric’s hot chocolate was basically just pure melted chocolate, and my 1€ latte was potentially the best I have ever had… Then the pizzas, so amazing, can’t even describe it.
After a fair bit of tasting we headed along the coast. We took a quick look at Sperlonga because I had read it was a great spot off the beaten track. It was ok, and I’m sure a great spot in the summer but we continued on to Gaeta. This is a small town I had found by just clicking on random locations on the map and finding something that looked kind of cool. It was amazing. Just a little place out on a peninsula with a beach on one side, a port on the other, a small town with nice restaurants and bars and positioned with a view of both the green mountains and the ocean. It also has a massive cathedral perched right up on top of the hill. It has a little of everything, a really great find. And it really is off the beaten track for tourists with pretty much only locals or Italian holiday goers in summer, partly due to the fact it does not have a train station. I’d love to come back here in the summer at some point. It really is the random stops that are the true gems.
So after a great experience in Gaeta we headed to Naples for not such a great experience… It was definitely not on the highlight list, but maybe it was just a bit of bad luck for us. Driving in was insane, the worst roads and the worst driving we had seen so far, not to mention the trash everywhere and overgrown bushes on both sides of the main road. We had to go through the port to get to the parking lot which was full of trucks driven by crazy drivers and then walk into the town through angry honking and cars that do not stop at lights or pedestrian crossings. After a stressful start we had a bit of a wander, saw a few cool things but wanted to get back to the car before it was too dark. Here are some nice pictures before I continue.
As we were leaving we took a wrong turn and ended up under the highway, one of the dodgiest areas I have seen. Rubbish everywhere, prostitutes lining the streets and the occasional police car (clearly it used to be a lot worse). We got back onto the motorway, but now dark and raining and full of cars. People are absolutely insane. All of the roads, even the main ones have potholes everywhere and zero drainage. It hadn’t even been raining much and the roads were flooded. That and the people speeding in the dark with no lights on passing on double solid lines as cars are coming in the other direction. Absolutely insane.
After that stressful drive we treated ourselves to a nice local dinner in Pompeii at Stuzzico By Lucius. This place uses all local ingredients and makes everything themselves. We also had our first taste of real Italian Limoncello before heading off to bed at the base of Mt. Vesuvius.
Day 39: Pompeii → Terre di Bosco
Early start for us today to get out and explore the ruins of Pompeii. Pompeii is a place that has always fascinated me since learning about it in year 9 Latin classes. In 79AD the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius completely buried the town. It stayed hidden until it was uncovered in the 16th century, exactly as it would have been at the time of the eruption. What is especially incredible is the cement casts of the individuals that perished in the eruption in exactly the position they would have been in at the time of the eruption; some shielding their face from the ash, others lying face down on the ground while one man has a complete look of desperation on his face, captured perfectly by the cement cast. Over time the bodies had obviously decayed leaving behind a cavity, so during excavation when they found a cavity they filled it with cement to recreate the form of the body as they were when they died. Fascinating to see.
We arrived just before the gates opened at 9am which meant we were a couple of the first people in. It felt like we had the whole town to ourselves for an hour or so before large groups of tourists started piling in. It was breathtaking walking the streets alone in an area frozen in time. The rain came and went during the day but it kind of gave a bit of drama to the surroundings.
After 4ish hours of exploring the area we headed off, and with exhausted legs and after stressful Italian driving we thought it was perfect timing for a relaxed luxury evening. We had a voucher for one night in a hotel with dinner and breakfast, so we chose the nicest one out of the options we had and headed off. We took a windy bumpy road up to the top of a hill to find Terre di Bosco, a beautiful hotel in a stunning location with a pool that has views all over the mountains to the ocean. Stunning, tranquil and just what we needed. Not to mention the amazing dinner that was included with our voucher, noms.
Day 40: Province of Salerno
Terre di Bosco was so nice and the surrounding area so stunning that we decided to stay for another night. The breakfast was included in the room (and was insanely good) so we ate as much as we could handle to keep us sorted for the day.
It is such a stunning area around this province. In the north there is the well known Amalfi coast, but the man at reception told us that the area would be very touristy today (especially because it was a weekend) and that in fact the area just to the south is just as stunning and free of crowds. We first headed north to have a look at the Temple of Neptune before we headed around the coast. It is a beautiful temple, but 9€ entry is a little excessive, especially when it is right next to the road and you can see everything from there. But the road that we took there over the hills was absolutely stunning.
Along the coast there are rolling green mountains dropping off into the sea. Right on the coastline you can find several caves and beaches and some hikes around them. It is very beautiful.
We did some small walks around the area but the best one was to Cala Bianca and Cala degli Infreschi. These are two beaches hidden by the cliffs, surrounded by little caves and only accessible by foot. The walks there took us through the bushes, up to viewpoints over the ocean and then down again. It would be amazing coming here early in the day to relax on the rocks in the sun and cool off in the deep blue water (unfortunately we were a bit too late for this but it was still well worth it in the evening).
The sun began to set as we drove back over the hills to our bed for the night. In a tiny town we found a pizzeria with amazing traditional pizzas for 2.50€ each (with our massive free breakfast on board this was our only spend for the day, choice).
Day 41: Terre di Bosco → Alberobello → Ostuni → Lecce
After another luxurious breakfast we hit the road east, first to Alberobello. This little town is full of buildings called Trulli. These Trulli have conical rooves that were put together using dry-stone construction (ie. no mortar holding the stones together). Legend says the reason for this is so that peasants could avoid paying taxes on their houses by claiming that the building was not structurally sound or quickly dismantling the stones when tax inspectors came. Each house also has a pinnacle which is a signature of the builder that put them together. They are pretty cool things to see but the town itself did not feel very active. A cool spot to see rather than to stay.
The next town we went to however felt a lot more alive. Ostuni is a little town perched up on a hill 10km or so south of Alberobello. It doesn’t look like much from the outside but inside there are some beautiful streets lined with houses with bleached white walls and some beautiful old architecture. I’m not sure if it’s just because we arrived on a Sunday but all the locals seemed to be wandering the streets smiling and relaxing in the sun of the central plaza. It had a really nice vibe.
Our last stop for the day was in Lecce. It is called by some as a mini Florence due to the renaissance architecture spread throughout the city. I’m not sure if I would go as far as comparing it to Florence but it is a beautiful town, and far less touristy. It also felt alive like Ostuni. The south definitely feels more local and less touristy compared to the north. I also think though a lot of people venture down the toe of Italy’s boot on the way to Sicily and forget about the heel. We really like it here though. I also had my first Italian risotto in Lecce which has got to be a moment worth mentioning (love risotto…).
Day 42: Lecce → Porto Cesareo → Gallipoli → Cave of Poetry → Brindisi → Greece…
Our AirBnB gave us some insider knowledge about what to see in this region. There was a lot to see so we picked a few spots that looked beautiful to explore on our last day in Italy before hopping on the ferry to Greece tonight.
First stop, Porto Cesareo. A really beautiful tiny town on Puglia’s west coast. The white buildings and glassy water shone in the sun, and not a foreign voice to be heard. Italy seems to do very well at diverting tourism into certain spots while keeping these beauties completely hidden. You need the insider knowledge to discover them.
Just a little south we had a little walk around Porto Selvaggo Regional Park. It was stunning. Along the coast we found lots of caves hidden in the cliffs and the water was so inviting. The small forest next to the park also seemed like a great spot to run with wide paths sheltered from the harsh sun. I can imagine spending a lot of time here if I was a local.
After a bit of a wander it was time for some gelato in Galipolli. Hands down the best we have had throughout Italy. It was at Martinucci Laboratory, if you are around here I definitely recommend going. Considering going back to Italy just for this gelato…
Our last stop before the ferry was The Cave of Poetry. Absolutely stunning. There is a little waterhole with crystal clear turquoise water for swimming. And the area surrounding is beautiful, especially on the hot sunny day we arrived. A perfect end to Italy. Now time to take a 16 hour ferry with the worst reviews I have every seen in my life. This should be interesting…