Living La Dolce Vita

Our speeding taxi bumped down potholed streets and around tight alleyways, blowing through intersections and swerving to miss the columns of ancient aqueducts, the driver distracted as he held a flashlight between his lips and flipped pages of a street-map of Rome. We had just arrived to the Eternal City, and exiting Ciampino Airport, the smaller of the two options there, Martin had haggled in his broken Italian for a taxi to our Airbnb apartment in the city’s up-and-coming Pigneto neighborhood. After much debate (who knew that in this world city even the taxis were negotiable?), our larger than life driver, eager for a fare, took us to his smaller than average vehicle for the ride of our lives. As he zoomed along, we were both very still and very quiet, either too nervous to speak or protest for fear of further distracting him or interrupting our prayers…or both (oh yes, mom, we were safely strapped in). Our packs were securely zipped and locked in the back, which was a comfort; for otherwise, our belongings would have surely been found up and down Via Casilina, flying from windows like a scene from Italian cinema. Finally, as the sun began to turn everything pink, the thin sliver of a white crescent moon looming high above, we skirted up to the curb out front of our new home, paid the driver and kissed the ground, happy to have survived the ride.

And so, began our two-week adventure through Italy, a country full of sweet surprises—unmatched beauty, mouth-watering foods, charming villages, and a way of life that sometimes felt foreign and emergent, despite the country’s global influence and familiarity.

A Blazing Roman Holiday

Catching our breath from our harrowing arrival the previous evening, which came after a full day spent traveling to Rome from the small fishing village on Sifnos, Greece, we eased into our Italian tour. We prepared a mid-morning Italian brunch in the apartment’s vintage kitchen and then headed for Vatican City where we had an appointment to see Michelangelo’s magnificent "Last Judgement" on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The bus that was meant to take us to our stop near the Tiber River never came, nor did the tram that seemed to be only transiting from the opposite direction. With midday temperatures soaring and patience thinning with the Southern sun, we forked over the cash for a (somewhat) air-conditioned taxi, this one much smoother than our previous night’s wild ride.

The Vatican Museum was impressive, showcasing the extensive reach and tremendous wealth of the Catholic Church, and as we made our way through the maze of galleries toward the sacred Chapel, we both felt butterflies at the anticipation of gazing upon that superb ceiling. And truly, masterpiece it is, better than any Instagram could possibly capture, and we both simply stood in awe—heads raised, jaws dropped—as a deep, booming voice repeated “Silencio. Silence.” and “No photography.” as a reminder to the throngs gathered in this holy room. Leaving the museum with bleary eyes—not only because of what we’d just seen, but also because of the bright sunlight—, we attempted to hide in the long shadows that St. Peter’s Basilica cast over the broad square as we cooled off with our first taste of creamy Italian gelato.      

After strolling along the Tiber, ogling historic statues and ancient architecture, we hopped on a city bus to head home, a seemingly uneventful experience until we arrived at Roma Termini where the driver of our parked connection failed to show for 20-minutes leaving us to commiserate amongst the heat with impassioned Italians who let him have it when he finally reported for duty.

The next morning, we were up early to try to beat the crowds at the iconic Colosseum, which just after 8AM was already teeming with tourists, reminding Trey of the thousands of tailgating fans who gather around his alma mater’s own stadium on a Tennessee Game Day. Dating back to the First Century AD, the architecture and layout of the Colosseum was a real marvel to behold. Afterward, we climbed Palatine Hill to take in panoramic views of Rome and its ancient monuments, before strolling through the Roman Forum to the blazing-white Altare della Patria, or Alter of the Fatherland, with its imposing statues that honor Italy’s first King. Back in Pigneto, we found shelter from the sizzling sun and later enjoyed an Italian dinner of Roman codfish and roasted lamb under twinkling lights in the courtyard of Necci, a staple of the neighborhood since the 1920s.

On our final day in overheated Roma, we walked the tourist trail from the Pantheon to the Trevi Fountain, by the Spanish Steps and Piazza Navona, wandering the little streets and storybook pastel buildings as we went. We capped off the evening with Martin’s famous carbonara, the recipe for which he had picked up while studying abroad years before in Siena. And like that, our tour of Rome—as beautiful in its achievements as in its downfalls—was over, and we began our road trip north.

Under the Tuscan Sun

For the next week, we would call a small farmhouse in the middle of a Tuscan olive grove our home, as we lazed about on the wide terrace and took in the historic stone village that had seemingly perched itself on a hill across a ravine. We cooked most of our meals, eating omelets the colors of the Italian flag or yogurt with fresh nectarines and apples for breakfast, salads with cured meats, cheeses or tinned fish for lunch, and big bowls of steaming pasta for dinner. (For those wondering, Italy is actually pretty mindful of gluten allergies as many of its children suffer from sensitivities, so finding tasty gluten-free pasta for Trey was a breeze.)

From our nest amongst the olive branches, we visited the rugged, wild beach of Maremma National Park, a long, white-sand beach covered in driftwood and seagrasses. We were amazed at the many small huts visitors had created out of the washed-up branches, providing cover from the shade and in some cases, actual dwellings (with porches included) for their day at the beach (although, no overnights are allowed). Here, we found our own small protection from the summer sun and spent several afternoons swimming in the cool waters of the choppy Tyrrhenian Sea. From our peaceful homestead, we took other short trips to visit Etruscan wonders left behind, such as Vie Cave with its small, winding trails cut through primordial hills that sometimes reach as high as 20 metres as well as the ancient village of Pitigliano, elegantly balanced on a large limestone cliff. Of course, we also relished in the lazier days back at the farmhouse when we barely left the breezy hammock or the covered terrace, reading, writing and finding stillness among the growing olives.

A Classic Italian Road Trip

After our Tuscan break, we jumped back in the car to start a week’s road trip through northern Italy, visiting the country’s famed cities and romantic villages as well as a few of its breathtaking natural wonders. Our first stop was the Renaissance village of Pienza, which provided gorgeous views of Val d’Orcia, the idyllic yellow and green Tuscan landscape rolling out below. After a casual panini lunch and afternoon gelato, we made our way to Siena, where Martin had studied during his university days. We took in the impressive Piazza del Campo with its tower dedicated to eating (Torre del Mangia) and the city’s shimmering green and white striped marble Duomo, while also walking memory lane, stopping by Martin’s old apartment, his favorite bar where he’d spent many a late-night dancing to Italian pop with friends, and Nannini pastry shop for ricciarelli almond cookies, his favorite in the world. We walked to the imposing Fortezza Medicea for its commanding views of the city, resting on a park bench to enjoy the orange glow of sunset, before opting for a picnic of salad and prosciutto on the still-warm bricks of the sloping Piazza del Campo, along with so many other tourists, students and locals.

The next morning, we made our way farther north, to the small town of Treviso, a next-door neighbor to Venice and in some ways a “lighter” version of the world-famous destination with its own charming canals, historic city wall and Romanesque architecture. Home to modern brands like Benetton, Sisley, Geox and Pinarello bicycles, the city has an eye for contemporary design and also food and drink—claiming to have been the originator of tiramisù, radicchio, and Prosecco wine. With a motley reputation, Venice in the summer is known to be hot, crowded and confusing, and instead of fighting the hoards, we found underrated Treviso to be a dreamy alternative.

We continued our journey the following day with a jaw-dropping ascent into the soaring Dolomites mountain range. They were so impressive, with towering rock formations and deep green valleys dotted with quaint villages and church steeples. After our week in Tuscany, we couldn’t help but notice the more verdant and lush landscape. As we climbed higher, the temperature started to drop, so we pulled out our buried hoodies and flannels, thankful for a respite from the Italian heat. Making our way to Kastelruth, where we’d spend the night, an intense rainstorm below through and blinded our vision, so we took a break from the curves for a car picnic of sandwiches and apples before dashing into an old hotel to warm up over coffees (and make use of their bathroom and Wi-Fi). Once we finally arrived to our destination, we continued to explore the incredible scenery, driving across small country lanes to sprawling meadows beneath the shadow of grand Rittner Horn. 

As the saying goes, “what goes up, must come down,” and so the next day, we made the descent to stunning Lake Garda, heading back into the summer heat of the valley below. As the northern tip of the country’s largest lake came into view, we were amazed by the hills that dropped straight into the shimmering water. Tunnels and bridges clung to the mountainsides as we drove south along the lake's eastern edge toward Sirmione, an old Italian village built on a thin peninsula at the southern end. Driving beside the waterfront, we conjured visions of the Rat Pack or old Italian movie stars vacationing here, with its small rocky beaches dotted with colorful umbrellas and hotels and villas that seemingly hadn’t been updated since that era. That afternoon, safely in our small hotel, we faced another powerful storm, this time with raindrops the size of snow globes and golf ball-sized hail. But nearly as soon as it had arrived, it too passed, and we walked into the enchanting Old Town of Sirmione, gazing from the city walls upon the blue-green lake while licking scoops of flavorful gelato.  

Mid-week brought us to fair Verona, romantic with its coral and white stone arena (smaller than Rome’s colosseum but just as historic) and pale pink marble streets that wind alongside the river. After taking in Juliet’s supposed balcony, the Pietra bridge and Giusti gardens, we carried on to Bologna, where we stayed just outside the historic walls of the pleasingly gritty city. Besides taking in the gothic-style architecture, different from the other Italian cities we’d toured, our mission here was haircuts!  

It’d been about six weeks since the disaster of the Hong Kong grannie barber, and we were in desperate need of a clean-up. During our afternoon walk, we found a traditional barbiere (white coats and all) and waited on the steps people-watching until we were called. The surly barber barely spoke to us and seemed offended that Martin had asked how long the wait would be (45-minutes, we soon found out) and how much (20-euro). But despite his grumbling, he chuckled when we showed him a Google translation that we’d last gotten haircuts six weeks ago in Hong Kong (How do you say "hideous" in Italian?). Feeling fresh and cute with our new ‘dos, we walked around Bologna inspired by the medieval edge that gave way to a creative culture.  

Too soon, our last day in Italy had arrived, and we found ourselves in fabulous Florence. The history! The art! The food! Florence is so handsome and well laid out along the Arno River, and we had a full day to explore the cobblestoned streets until our evening appointment to see another famed masterpiece by Michelangelo. We took full advantage of it all, walking toward the river and stopping at the incredible terra-cotta tiled Duomo, sprawling Palazzo Vecchio and Uffizi Gallery, and crossing the Ponte Vecchio. On the other side of the Arno, we grabbed gelato at a small shop Trey had previously visited with colleagues, and much to his delight, the large scoop of stracciatella was just as creamy, light and delicious as he remembered. After the sweet stop, we strolled by the Pitti Palace and took stairs up the hillside for a stunning view of the city from Piazzale Michelangelo.

We had an early aperitivo at super-cool La Ménagère, a Florentine complex of eateries with retail and performance space, before our final stop at Galleria dell’Accademia, where we took in the magnificent, milky-white marble statue of David. The entire gallery was constructed in the late 1700s specifically to house this Michelangelo masterwork, and seeing it in person, we can truly attest to its breathtaking beauty. After snapping pics, we sat on a small bench across from the Biblical hero and reveled in both the detail and simplicity of the sculpture (not lost on us that the small shepherd who defeated the giant was now forever preserved as giant-sized himself).

As the sun sat on Florence as well as our two-week tour through Italy, we headed back to our hotel ready for the next adventure and feeling full and inspired by all that we had seen across this storied boot-shaped land.