At some point of time, a cold drizzle crumbled the September heat in ‘the eternal city’ of Rome. And three days into my stay in central Italy (where ancient empire meets urban-sprawl), a couple of things about the Roman lifestyle left me puzzled. Did these guys go to work at all? Or did they know what the indubitable peak hour traffic was all about?
As day four drew in, my wife and I forced ourselves out of bed at our B&B in the eastern part of the city to catch a morning train to Florence.
The sun was barely up as we sauntered out with our baggage and an umbrella. Answers to my questions flashed by as we walked out at 6 am, the very start of the Roman peak hour, with packed trams and ever-courteous traffic moving smoothly like a jaded assembly line. This revelation set the tone for what was to come: an encounter with an Italian vendor who spoke broken Malayalam, squeezing through the network of subterranean Naples and wandering through the ruins of a dead city.
Italy has the most number of UNESCO heritage sites. Why? They just love to dig up ruins. They dig. People pay to see. Money goes into maintenance. They dig some more. It works like clockwork. Apparently, over 60 per cent of ancient Rome is still underground.
Rome & The Vatican
In terms of advice, an oldie but goodie is to explore any unfamiliar city on foot. And it works wonderfully in Europe. But even when you’re not paying for fuel, getting a bottle of water or surprising your palates with an Italian spread can be an expensive deal. However, you should know that the numerous public drinking water fountains sourcing water from ancient Roman aqueducts can take care of your hydration for free.
Instead of joining the long queues to enter the Colosseum, we made our way through the less crowded Palatine Hill – where the birthplace of the Roman Empire was born – and the Forum to the Colosseum entrance. We walked right in, with the ticket purchased from Palatine Hill. The 60,000 strong elliptical amphitheatre, with its intricate mazes, had witnessed the bloodiest and goriest showdowns between men and beasts. It gives you food for thought. And then you hear some puzzled tourist asking his companion, “Idhar kaise jhagda karenge log?” it makes you think some more.
The Vatican, with the river Tiber snaking through it, can be an incredible part of your visit with the towering St Peter’s Basilica looking down at St Peter’s Square. I don’t know who taught them geometry, but pssst… the Square is a circle. The Vatican museums navigate through the Stanze della Segnatura and Sistine Chapel, ending at the famed double helix spiral staircase. Here’s some trivia: the staircase was designed years before the discovery of the double helical DNA strand. The afternoon is a better time to visit as it’s less crowded.
After we gaped at the room decorated by Raphael and the artful overdose spawned by Michelangelo’s works inside the Sistine Chapel, we made our way to the juggernaut of a square. If you’re not in the mood for a guide cracking jokes about gladiators, opt for the audio guides. We stuck to Google and Wikipedia. Good enough, but not the best thing to do, as you might not even know what you missed. We still don’t.
Florence was pleasantly cold when we rolled in, announcing ourselves with the clunking of our suitcase trolley on the cobbled roads. A bridge, being one among the legendary Ponte Vecchio, took us to the other side of the Arno river to our host’s place. Unlike Rome, most of Florence can be enjoyed on foot. Water, food, even souvenirs and interesting curios come cheap across the river. And yes, the Bata stores. They’re everywhere! And the Italian arm of the Czech-born , Swiss-based very international brand actually has hip designs.
From discovering the music of Italian rocker Piero Pelù to catching local acts such as Travolta’s Disco Explosion on a Friday night, you will discover the otherwise tranquil Florence opening up its wild side.
The city is fashionable and moves at a slower pace than Rome. The hues and shades of the red-tiled skyline seize the mood of the city and its numerous gardens and vantage points, like the Michelangelo point. A bus strike busted our chances of visiting it, but we definitely witnessed Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, David, at the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno. What’s the big deal about David, we’d wondered. Well, he’s nothing short of spectacular! The following day had us making a beeline for the Uffizi gallery, one of the finest museums in the world, which has enough master strokes delivered by the da Vincis, Botticellis and Caravaggios to make any artist go weak at the knees.
The fag end of our trip took us to the blink-and-you-get-robbed Naples. I don’t want to get into the details. First, we explored the tourist spots around the city. A train took us to our B&B in the sleepy beach town of Piano Di Sorrento, where we found the coziest of stays. A steep walk down from the town, overlooking a cove and the azure waters of the Mediterranean, took us to the beach and a seafood platter of juicy shrimps and grilled squid. And definitely try the famed limoncello, which is quite potent.
A trip to Pompeii, an ancient city destroyed when Mt Vesuvius went crazy in AD 79, is huge and may take several hours to explore. Pompeii time warped us with its delicate ruins and several amphitheatres of which one was used to shoot the legendary Live at Pompeii video of Pink Floyd. The final day took us back to Naples for a night’s stay. The city is relatively chaotic and our stay in a hostel near the university area took us through graffiti-laden streets – mostly political, with an almost communist feeling to it.
We embarked on locating Michele pizzeria where apparently the Margherita pizza was invented. Framed photos of celebrity customers such as Julia Roberts and legendary footballers adorn the white walls. Kind of reminds you of Britannia in south Mumbai.
Exploring the subterranean network is a guided tour affair. “It was discovered just 15 years ago when archaeologists found a way down a trap door to a wine cellar under the bed in a residential house. Time to think what lies under your beds,” our guide remarked to the group.
Grab your food and enjoy it at a piazza or public square instead of ordering in a café or restaurant. do not buy expensive bottled waters; quench your thirst at the water fountains instead. look for places that offer aperitivo. Make the best use of public transport passes for local commutes. Save time by heading to the Colosseum through the Palatine Hill entry gate. Put your adolescenT LOOKS to good use and charm your way to a discounted entry to the Vatican.
Don’t have second thoughts about climbing to the top of the St Peter’s Basilica Duomo that is worth all the 320 steps you climb. Once you have scaled your way up, you can extol in the sucker punch of a view of the square and the city. Avoid the elevator to the Dome and save yourself a decent amount. shuttling between the Fiumicino airport and the city by bus works out cheaper than the train.
Book flight tickets and inter-city train tickets well in advance for a neat little saving. For inter-city travel, tickets can be booked through Trenitalia websites.
Book your stays through Airbnb, a homestay website (think paid Couchsurfing, and beds for a couch) that made our stay homely and richer with local tips thrown in by our hosts that saved both time and money.
Google Maps can be handy in helping you determine the distance between your B&B and the tourist spots you wish to see.
Make sure you read reviews posted by travellers who have already stayed at the B&B you are planning to choose. These reviews will give you a good idea about the place, the hosts and their hospitality.
From HT Brunch, January 13
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