I wanted to explore Italy so badly that I was willing to do it by myself. I thought that would mean doing whatever I wanted and spending every day exploring how I wanted, but what it really means is walking alone in a sea of honeymooners, silent meals for one, and going to bed early because I’m a single girl and, like it or not, I need to be careful. Being along sucks and it’s no way to travel across Italy.
Or maybe it is.
Traveling alone has been an enlightening experience unlike any other and looking back, with 6 weeks left in Europe before heading back to The States, it might have been exactly what I needed to remind me of just how lucky I am to have been granted this experience. When will I ever have the opportunity to travel alone again? I mean seriously! When will I have an entire week devoted to just me again yet alone 4 months in Europe?
It is all about perspective and while I probably won’t opt for a romantic destination vacation for one next time around, I’ll probably never again get the opportunity to even sport the idea
I started in Lake Como. Staying in a hillside village with an incredible balcony view called Perledo. Yes, this was my view – I drove about 1,000 feet down a snake-y and narrow street each day to the waterside town of Varenna where the streets were cobblestoned and canopied with fall leaves. I purchased a ferry ticket to explore the neighbouring towns of Bellagio and Menaggio for the day. Maybe I was a bit bias but Varenna was definitely my favorite. The ferry docked in front of a large yellow hotel and a lavendar shop and to get to the restaurants and gelato, you had to walk along a suspended water’s edge path covered in vines. The first night I had basil rigatoni with bolognese sauce and the second night I had artichoke pâté on bread and ham, arugala, and mozzerella pizza. Both meals were paired with wonderful house wine.
More Lake Como –
While I didn’t feel any earthquakes, I had driven over the Lecco overpass that made national news hours before it collapsed from a heavy-weight truck on my way to Varenna from the Milan airport. That made the world a little smaller in a totally different way. I drove around the broken concrete mound two days later on my way to Cinque Terre.
My parents graciously sent me our GPS complete with Italian maps a few weeks ago in a care package for my birthday. Incredibly helpful and incredibly necessary. Driving in Italy isn’t as terrifying as people say. The signs are a little different and the cars are a lot smaller, but for the most part the idiot drivers here are no different from the ones I’ve witnessed driving I-80 through Nebraska. I made the mistake on my first travel day though in checking the box on my GPS to avoid toll roads. Unlike in the US where the toll road may save you 20 minutes, in Italy it can save you 5 hours. I learned that the hard way. The trip from Lake Como to Cinque Terre took 7 hours instead of 2.5 and by the time I realized my mistake, I was in some far off village on top of a mountain in the middle of absolutely nowhere, at least it was gorgeous. I was in the middle of gorgeous nowhere. My time in Vernazza, Cinque Terre was cut about 6 hours too short and for being just a stop-over on my way to Florence, that was a lifetime.
When I finally got to Vernazza, though, the sun was just setting and I caught a glimpse of an incredible sunset over the Mediterranean. From my personal balcony (airbnb you did it again!), I enjoyed a small bottle of wine and a focaccia pizza slice layered thick with mozzarella and pesto for dinner.
From Vernazza, I continued to Florence with a quick stop for a shameless selfie at the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Not much else in the tourist town, but I did have my first experience at a full-service gas station.
Following my airbnb host’s instructions in Florence, I parked at a dead end park on the southside of the river and walked to the airbnb. On my way, I stopped for a panini at the famous All’Antico Vinaio. The line took nearly an hour but from my many recommendations, I knew it would be worth it. Prosciutto, goat cheese, arugula, and truffle spread. Yep, worth it. I spent all of the following days walking all over Florence. I met David, I saw the Duomo, I read a book in the rose garden, I watched the sunset over the Ponte Vecchio, and I bought a leather jacket with money from my grandparents for my birthday. (Thanks Dix & Bubba and Mama & Papa!) And on my last morning, I met a friend who’s studying in Florence for breakfast. We met interning in New York for the summer, and we reconnected in Florence. Pretty cool.
Next up, a night in Siena on my way to Rome. Siena is a walking, Renaissance city on top of a hill. The only cars allowed inside are those that restock the restaurants with Coca Cola and produce in the early mornings before the city wakes up. I read in the large fan-shaped central square, Piazza del Campo and enjoyed some homemade pici pasta with pumpkin cream sauce and sausage. When I got back to my airbnb, my host, Luca, and I talked politics over chamomile tea and apple cake.
The next morning I left Siena for my final destination: Rome. My airbnb was located a stone’s throw from the Vatican and had such nice accommodations I’m already planning my next visit. My dad studied in Rome when he was my age and my mom visited him often while simultaneously traveling Europe with Up With People at the same time. As sad as we all were that they couldn’t join me on my first trip, I’ll be sure we’ll share in our second. Their number one recommendation was a family-owned gelato shop called Giolitti’s, a staple in Rome. Before meeting up with my friend from Copenhagen who happened to have planned a trip to Rome for the same time, I stopped and got my first of many gelatos at Giolitti’s. 30 incredible flavors topped with homemade whip cream called “panna”. My favorites were Bacio (another of my parents’ recommendations), Raspberry, and Pistachio.
Caleigh and Lauren had been given some recommendations as well so after a second Giolitti’s experience we walked a long way to a mom and pop neighbourhood restaurant located in Trastavere. I had gnocchi and the house red. Buenísimo! After paying our check, a group of business men behind us started up another conversation on American politics. Turns out they are all professors at the local international school. One in particular was a high-up Maltese diplomat who’s spoken at Stanford on international politics on several occasions.
We started the next day making a wish at Trevi Fountain. We walked all day and visited the Spanish Steps, the Roman Forum, the Colosseum… and Giolitti’s… twice. We ate Margherita pizzas at a local university restaurant for lunch and spicy penne for dinner next to the Pantheon.
On our last day, we had reservations for the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Cathedral at 1pm but woke up conveniently early enough for Giolitti’s (I might have an addiction). As promised, the lines for The Vatican were really long but well worth it. I didn’t know what to expect at all, just that Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam and Pieta were somewhere inside, and I was in for it. To my likely-ignorant surprise, the Creation of Adam is a small panel fit in the center in an incredible ceiling of frescos in an ever grander building full of them. Unfortunately you can’t take pictures inside the Sistine Chapel but it truly was amazing. Being pushed and nudged to oblivion by a Japanese tour group on one side and a Brazilian oneon the other was not so amazing. But even that spoke to the universality of Michelangelo’s work.
We opted for an early dinner after The Vatican because Caleigh and Lauren had an early flight the next morning. What turned out to be our favorite meal in Rome and mine in Italy was just a few streets from The Vatican’s outer wall. We probably would have walked right past it if not for the woman working at the gelato shop next door who saw us eye it skeptically and assured us of how good it was. A waiter sporting a thick line of eyeliner and jeans that were just a little too tight named Monsour greated us and pointed us to a table in what seems to be the back corner of the restaurant. Using my very limited Italian to thank him, he assumed that I was a local and immediately took a liking to us. He got a good laugh when I told him shortly after that I was from The States but that I was indeed third generation. Caprese salad, wonderful red wine, and a plate of carbonara pasta (his recommendation). Dessert was a large piece of tiramisu topped with cocoa powder and panda (whipped cream) split among the three of us though we each wished we had our own. When I asked for the check Monsour played dumb and instead had us follow him through a maze of a giant restaurant to the kitchen where the whole staff wanted a picture with us. 1-2-3-Carbonara!! I’m still confused how our interactions escalated to this but hey, I got to take a pizza out of the oven and that was a pretty cool way to end our time in Rome and my week in Italy.
I ate a lot of gelato, walked a half marathon nearly every day, and met some incredible people. And y the time I met up with a friend in Rome, (1) I was more than ready to enter back into social civilisation, and (2) it felt like a whole new vacation!
Looking back, my time in Italy was a learning experience I will treasure forever. I know that I am independent. Often stubbornly so. But independence is not always a strength. Certain experiences are meant to be shared. Renting a car and driving through Italy by myself is just as independent as it gets, but without Caleigh and Lauren, easily more that half of my experiences in Rome would not have happened. Experiencing a new place is only half the fun, sharing that experience with another person is what really counts. I can’t wait to take my best friend, my boyfriend, my husband, my family to the places I have been. I feel like I didn’t properly experienced those places alone and maybe that was the whole point… Now I have to go back!