By Jeanne Reynolds
Abba fans, sit back down — this isn’t about their song or the movie (and now a sequel) by the same name. But it does sum up my recent trip to Italy.
You know what it’s like when you look forward to something so much for so long, it can’t possibly live up to your expectations?
This trip was nothing like that. It. Was. Amazing.
What did I like best: the scenery, the art and architecture, the mind-warping antiquity, the food, the wine?
A quick overview of our itinerary: Direct flight from Charlotte to Rome, 3 nights there including a private day-long tour with a guide, drive to Tuscany for 4 nights in Siena, drive to Sorrento for 2 nights there, and finally back to Rome for our flight back the next day.
We didn’t come close to seeing it all, but we saw a lot: the Vatican, Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica and Square, Colosseum, Palatine Hill, Roman Forum, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, catacombs. And that was just in Rome. In and around Siena we climbed winding staircases up towers (400 steps in one case), marveled at museums full of priceless treasures, visited towering cathedrals and walked ancient medieval streets. Near Sorrento, we traveled up and down an impossibly narrow cliffside road with hair-raising turns, and then in a chairlift to the top of the Isle of Capri (yes, while wearing capri pants!). On the way back to Rome we visited Pompeii near the foot of Mt. Vesuvius and were overcome with wonder and sadness at a lost civilization.
Ignoring well-meaning advice from family members, we didn’t even consider a prepackaged, city-a-day group bus tour. That kind of trip has some advantages, but it wasn’t the experience I craved for my Italian adventure. Instead we stayed in very small bed-and-breakfasts I found online (I highly recommend Booking.com) and found our own way around using maps, GPS, phone apps and helpful locals. A couple of our accommodations were wonderful, one was mostly convenient, but all were clean, affordable and safe.
When we wanted to eat — and did we ever! — we asked our B&B hosts for recommendations or just walked until something looked good. The results ranged from good to extraordinary, usually accompanied by the local house wine (or vino della casa, as we like to say). We tried wood-fired pizza with a thin, crisp crust, fried artichokes, Tuscan-style steak with rosemary and olive oil, grilled squid, crusty bread and of course, pasta. It’s hard to describe what was so wonderful about it, but fresh, local ingredients using old family recipes and al fresco dining are hard to beat. And the gelato … one of us had it every day (sometimes twice). It’s that good. And no, sadly no, nothing in the grocery store freezer case can possibly replicate it.
And guess what? Neither of us gained an ounce. Because first, the meals impress with flavor rather than size, and second, we walked an average of 5 miles a day, up and down hills and stairs. (Remember that tower? 400 steps up means 400 down, too.)
Of course, wonderful doesn’t necessarily mean perfect. Trying to figure out when we could park where in Siena without a ticket or a tow was challenging, and let’s just say Americans have a different standard when it comes to public bathroom facilities. And despite the GPS, maps and road signs, we frequently got turned around trying to find our destinations.
So, now that I’m a wily veteran of la dolce vita (that’s a joke, of course — we could go to Italy every year for the next decade and not experience all its wonders), here’s some advice:
Yep, that’s it. I was going to include a 7-point list of tips about protecting your passport and cash from pickpockets, how to tell if the gelato is homemade and which shop in Anacapri is best for handmade Italian leather shoes (surprisingly affordable, by the way). But there are dozens of guidebooks that can tell you that and a whole lot more.
And really, this isn’t about Italy. It’s about finding a way to visit the places and do the things you dream of. Life is too short not to.
That’s the advice I hope I remember myself.