By Rachel Tan
Naples, 11:08pm. I’m standing on a rooftop balcony overlooking the glittering city lights, which glow orange in the surrounding darkness. In the distance, suspended in the vast quiet of the night, looms the faint outline of Mount Vesuvius. Soon, I will be leaving Italy, having completed a thoroughly exhilarating tour of the breath-taking country.
My friends and I decided to visit Italy this winter to avoid freezing temperatures and of course to discover the country’s renowned and eclectic mix of cuisine, culture and sights. The three weeks spent in Milan, Genoa, Cinque Terre, Florence, Rome and Naples were much colder than expected, but we were not disappointed by the abundance of incredible food, brilliant architecture, art and scenic views.
After a 4am rush to the airport, flight delays and 30 hours without sleep, Milan greeted all of us with snow! The weather later turned grey and rainy but did not take away from the magnificence of Milan’s Duomo, a colossal architectural masterpiece of pinkish-white marble. It features various altars and sarcophagi, and I was absolutely in awe of the huge array of intricately carved sculptures on its impressive facade.
Near the Duomo, we explored the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (for window shopping only – definitely unsuited for the student budget!) and headed down a side street to Luini, a famous panzerotti shop. Luini is so popular that it has its own ‘bouncer’ to usher customers into separate queues that stretch out onto the street. The affordable and mouth-watering piece of panzerotti-goodness was so worth the wait!
An evening trip to San Bernadino Alle Ossa, otherwise known as ‘the bone church’ was an eerily macabre alternative to the usually picturesque sights of Milan. Dating back to a 13th century chamber which stored bones from the local graveyard, the church’s ossuary is mostly decorated with human skulls and femurs. The walls are covered with bones of hospital patients as well as beheaded criminals, supposedly a balance between good and bad, innocent and guilty.
Genoa and Cinque Terre
Streaming sunshine, baby blue skies reflected over the expanse of cerulean sea and clusters of pastel apartments spread out amongst lush greenery and rocky cliffs – the Italian west coast was perhaps the most vibrant part of our journey. The port city of Genoa is famous for its fresh seafood, pesto sauce and focaccia bread. We followed street signs towards the old harbour and made our way through a labyrinth of narrow, cobblestone alleys, past quaint foccacerias (bread shops) and colourful blocks of flats.
After enjoying a panoramic view of the whole city from Spianatta Casteletto, we chased the sunset by trying to reach one of the highest points of Genoa. Unfortunately, the Castello Bruzzo was closed, but we caught a breathtaking glimpse of the city as it was saturated with gold, orange and pink hues.
We spent Christmas Eve visiting the stunning villages of Cinque Terre (‘five lands’). Each village has its own distinct charm, from the enchanting fishing harbours of Riomaggiore and Vernazza, the dramatic cliffs of Manarola and Corniglia, to the swirling deep blue and emerald waters of Monterossa al Mare. We found ourselves nimbly venturing along the rocky coast, enjoying the brilliant weather, fresh calamari and yet another spectacular sunset.
The iconic artistic centre of Italy is well known for its museums and galleries, filled with Renaissance masterpieces by artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo. Entrance fees to some of the famed destinations (including Palazzo Pitti, Galleria dell’Accademia and Giardini di Boboli) can take their toll on the ever-limited student budget, so we spent most of our time wandering through the various piazzas, public streets and admiring the architectural wonder that is the city itself. Of course, it is possible to take a day trip to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, as well as to the Tuscan countryside or Siena.
Despite the throng of tourists, Rome turned out to be my favourite Italian city for its grandeur and opulent beauty. There is an abundance of places of interest to explore and admire, each indubitably rich in culture and history. On New Year’s Eve, we took in the view of the city at the Janiculum, before wandering around the colossal Castel Sant’Angelo along the tranquil Tiber river.
New Year’s Day happened to be the first Sunday of the month, an excellent time to hit the tourist sites as entry to state museums and attractions are free of charge. Charting a north-west route, we made our way on foot from the Colosseum and stopped at the Roman Forum, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps and the Pantheon.
We also spent a day at the stunning Vatican City, home to some resplendent art as well as the stunning Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica. To avoid the queues, we pre-booked entrance tickets online and were treated to an endless stretch of galleries, filled with paintings, breath-taking tapestries, sculptures and exquisite murals.
I had been forewarned by a few friends that Naples is more ‘dodgy’ than the rest of Italy. However, while it does not exude the extravagant elegance of Rome, or the artistic serenity of Florence, Naples is a more vibrant and ‘real’ experience of life in Italy. The city is alive with chaotic traffic, bursts of graffiti and cafes selling local delights.
An unusual cold spell hit Naples during our day trip to Pompeii as we braced the -2 degree weather and biting wind, taking shelter behind the derelict walls of the imposing ruins, a grand amphitheatre and even an ancient brothel. Most of the furniture and artefacts had been moved to the archaeological museum in Naples. However the expanse of excavated stone buildings and the towering Mount Vesuvius were a sight to behold.
This trip was my very first ‘independent’ vacation and being spontaneous and somewhat naïve freshers, we planned the schedule, transport and accommodation for only half the trip. Going with the flow resulted in many close calls (including a missed bus and an 11-hour coach ride), but some of my best memories include running for trains and arriving at the very last moment.
Italy has been a completely immersive and captivating experience – and if my wish at Rome’s Trevi Fountain comes true someday – I’ll be back.
Photographs: Rachel Tan