Italy is the cradle of civilisation; home of gladiators, the Renaissance, the Pope and the best food in Europe - the experiences are endless. Whether you are looking for a Russell Crowe moment or perhaps wish to indulge in the masterful creations of Michelangelo, Titian, Leonardo and Raphael, Venice, Florence and Rome all offer tantalising access points back to the past. Theses cities are centres of European history and artistic enlightenment and the responses to the 'David' in Florence, the excavations of Pompeii near Naples and the Sistene Chapel of Vatican city, equal, if not better, bungee jumping, skiing and jungle trekking.
Italy has been a major Gap Year destination since the 18th Century! Young gentlemen, ladies, artists and architects travelled to the peninsula as part of their 'Grand Tour' which they took at any age after 18, as part of their coming of age or university scholarship. Italy still holds the charm of the past, with its incredible Churches, paintings and unbeatable cuisine. Reading Tobias Jones' 'Dark Heart of Italy', perhaps put a few rosy romantic notions to bed, but don't be fooled into thinking that Italy only has superficial charm - Italians know how to make their guests feel welcome night and day.
When in Italy, don't eat fast food. It is cheaper and more rewarding to find the small back street 'paninoteca' where you can have a ciabatta filled with porchetta (roast pig), rocket and italian tomatoes. Places to eat out vary in cost and quality as in any country around the world. Enoteca's are usually off-licenses that have a limited menu best washed down with a glass of home-made chianti. Trattoria are family run kitchens that will serve local, seasonal dishes, and ristorante are the more usual eateries, where the best ones are found by asking the locals. Dishes to look out for on top of the brilliant pizza and pasta are 'frittura mista' (fried seafood with lemon), 'bistecca fiorentina' (vast steaks to share, usually cooked rare) and 'saltimbocca alla romana' (slices of veal and ham cooked in lemon with sage or bay leaves).
Temperatures are extreme in the summer, but the small coastal towns of Italy offer extreme relaxation with fabulous beaches (if you don't mind a the sun-bed and umbrella culture), excellent trattoria's and hidden away grottoes. Beaches and boat hire can be expensive, but can be nicely balanced out by camping near to the resort. Going off-the-beaten-track is getting harder and harder in Italy, but the tiny villages dotted around Veneto, Lombardy, Tuscany and Lazio regions, are always a concentrate of Italian culture and hospitality.
When in Italy - open your mind. Although close to home, it isn't a warmer extension of Britain, it is another culture, another nation and most importantly an environment of encounter mind-blowing adventure.
Recommended things to do
- Colosseum – a must-see, even if it’s just a wander round the outside. I highly recommend paying to go inside though and letting your imagination run wild with everything that used to go on there. Apparently there are often local students hanging around outside, who you can pay for a more personalised tour, though we didn’t opt for that. Be careful, as there are groups of gypsy children in the area, who hang around to pickpocket – we saw someone very nearly get her bag pinched, although this is always something to be weary of around Rome. I would also recommend paying for the audio tour as it tells you a lot of facts simply left out of city guide books as there really isnt enough room for them all. From the top of the Colosseum you can view the Arch of Constantine and parts of the Palatine Hill with the Roman Forum. When I was there they were finishing the viewing deck which is built on top of the underground chambers (now open for all to see due to the building being picked clean when left empty). Bear in mind that lines for the toilets inside this site are long and the facilities are less than satisfactory compared to those in restaurants (not including those in the McDonalds opposite the Pantheon- unapproachable).
- Vatican – also a must-see. If you want to see the Sistine Chapel when it’s relatively quiet, get to the museum really early and accept you’re not going to be able to see everything else in the museum before you get there (though there is some great stuff). Then approach St Peter’s Square through the backstreets, rather than heading up the big avenue put in place by Mussolini – the scale really hits you more from that angle. I’d recommend going up the tower in St Peter’s as well as just looking round the inside, as there are fantastic views from the top.
- The Vatican Museums - Passable. 8 miles long and a bit of a maze in terms of trying to exit where it says St Peter's Basilica you are being fooled as you still have a lot of walking ahead of you. It really is a 'museum' of interconnecting rooms that although beautifully painted are very similar to each other and take up a lot of very precious sight-seeing time. Some very famous paintings here though, such as The School of Athens.
- Roman Forum – like the Colosseum, you have to use your imagination, but this was probably my favourite ‘sight’ in Rome and is completely free!
- Trevi Fountains – another popular tourist spot. You’re supposed to throw coins in for good luck, though everyone looked a bit perplexed when we started emptying our purses!
- Churches - You may not be religious, but Rome has an amazing collection of religious buildings which vary so much. Inside your eyes will be delighted at a splendorous mixes of gold. Also good places to take a rest in from the heat of the day, but remember to wear suitable clothing, otherwise you might be kicked out.
- Catacombs - Take a trip out of the city, by walking of course, to the Via Appia Antica and visit some of the catacombs where Christians hid during Roman persecution. Extremely interesting guided tours and also a way to escape the heat of the day.
- Ostia Antica - This makes for a great day trip to an old Roman port town South-West of Rome. You can get there easily by buying the €1 metro tickets which last for a certain amount of time (70mins?). Plenty of sights to see, including Roman houses, a forum with temples, statues, baths, and one of the first ever churches. Fascinating day out. Take bottles of water and a picnic, as the place is much larger than you think; there is a cafe onsite, but it will take a while to get to it from the entrance.
- For eating, I’d really recommend Brek, either for lunch or dinner. It’s one of a chain of self-service restaurants in Italy and is really cheap and quick. They make fresh pizza, pasta, salad etc right in front of your eyes, so if your Italian isn’t great, you can at least point at something that looks good! There are loads of really nice restaurants, best found by just wandering the streets, but don’t forget that Italians tend to eat late.
- For drinking, If you are in Rome during the Summer months, it is important to keep water with you due to the extreme heat. Constantly buying water may not cost too much, but if you are there for a week, two weeks.. it will add up. Buy one or two bottles, then save your money. Everywhere around Rome you will see brass water-taps with water constantly running out of them. This water is clean,fresh and oh so cold. Fill up your bottles, remember their locations, and you will save yourself money. There is also one at the Vatican, so if your travels bring you there or passing by, fill up that water!
From a roman point of view:
- Colosseum Warning: be careful not to confuse it with the Teatro Marcello. It might sound stupid, but some tourists approach the "wrong" colosseum. Oh, in the summer, almost every Thursday, there is a group of jugglers near one of the arches (yay, fire!). Ehr, weather permitting, of course.
- Gianicolo – Go there if you want the most beautiful panoramic view of Rome. And for the family entertainment, there is often a puppets show for children with typical italian characters (Pulcinella, Arlecchino, Pantalone, etc.). Great fun.
- Trastevere – Just go there for a walk, and get lost. I warmly recommend a nocturne visit as well.
- Great places to visit, definitely touristic – Here's a list of some other worthful places to see, in my opinion. Piazza Navona, Campo de' Fiori, Pantheon, Piazza Venezia, Piazza del Popolo, Piazza di Spagna.
- Some parks – There are plenty of parks in Rome. Just to name a few, the huge Villa Pamphili, Villa Borghese and Villa Ada; the smaller Villa Sciarra, Parco del Celio and Parco del Colle Oppio; the wonderful Giardino degli Aranci. Moral: just go to a park and relax.
- San Lorenzo – It's a zone near Termini, just between the life-full university La Sapienza and the not-that-life-full cemetery of Verano. Is where students usually go to chill and have a beer on fridays and saturdays nights. Very relaxed place, full of pubs and typical roman youth.
- Social centres – If you like this sort of places, Rome is full of social centres (centri sociali in italian). The most famous are: "Villaggio Globale" near the ex-mattatoio, in testaccio, and "La Strada" in Garbatella. They often offer nice DnB, Tekno and Raggae evenings for around 5 euros. The beer inside is really cheap.
- Some general raccomendations and observations – Just to make it a safe journey, a couple of points to bear in mind:
- i) Italians drive like crazy. Romans drive even worse. Just forget the equation zebra crossing=safe crossing. That just won't happen. Rome is not the UK. It's like an urban jungle. Treat it like that. And by the way, beware of mopads, they can suddenly appear when less expected.
- ii) Don't eat in touristic places, it will cost you a fortune. There are lots of "pizza al taglio", where you can buy a piece of tasty pizza; "trattoria"s are also good, but (of course) more expensive.
Oh, a coffee should cost around 0.80 or 0.90 euros. And the english Latte is called Cappuccino.
Recommended places to stay
My travelling companion didn’t want to stay in a hostel, so we stayed at Hotel Virginia, which is fairly near the Termini station. The staff were friendly and the room was clean with good facilities, so I’d definitely recommend it. Breakfast is a voucher for the café next door, but I loved that, as the place was full of locals on their way to work rather than tourists. The restaurant opposite is also good. For a budget option there is a camping place on the edge of the city. Camping Village Roma has varying types of accomdation, from tent pitches to beach hut style tents with beds to static caravan type "bungalows". Its easy to find and book online, and the staff all speak good English. Although its far out that doesn't mean its hard to get to. Take the linea A metro line to Cornelia, then the bus (I forget the number, but it is on their website, easily found on google) until you see a big supermarket called Panorama (very useful for buying the days food) with a big overpass above the road. It will be obvious when you see it, and lots of other people will be getting off at the same stop.
If you get a flight with Easyjet or Ryanair, you'll arrive at Ciampino airport, rather than the main one. Get the airport bus to and from the centre - details are available from the Easyjet website. It is possible to travel by bus and train, but it takes forever!
- Piazza san Marco - Very expensive - I wouldn't eat in the restaurants around the edges because they charge riduculous prices - I saw a Coke advertised for over 8 Euros! If you want to eat the Italian food then head in towards the smaller streets and explore, as there are little restaurants dotted about everywhere which are cheaper. If you're really on the cheap then there's a choice of 2 McDonalds to choose from!!!! Also, pigeons are disgusting... there are so many and you get people selling food so you can feed them (reminds me of Mary Poppins... tuppence, tuppence a bag Except it's a bit more expensive than tuppence!) We got out of there as soon as we could, we didn't want to get pooed on!
- Gondolas - Every tourist wants a ride on a gondola, but it's extremely expensive - over 60 Euros for a half hour trip. If you want to go on a gondola but don't have that much money, head to the Rialto bridge... along the banks the canal is widest here and there gondolas that ferry you to the other side for only 1 Euro!!! Bargain! Ok, they're not the lovely painted shiny ones with flowers and a bloke that sings to you in a stripy top, but iwhat more can you want from 1 Euro!
- The Basilica - We didn't go in here because it was so busy (lots of tourists!!!) and we could see that they did not give you a chance to stop to look, you were just hurried through - not a good experience. If you really want to get in, then get there early.
- Campanile - This is the big tower... you can queue up to get up to the top.. it might be a bit of a wait, but it's definitely worth it, the views are amazing - don't go up there without a camera!!! You can see all the major landmarks and much more, it's great and definitely worth the money.
- The Ghetto - Head further into the backstreets and you'll (probably!) get to the original Ghetto - this is where the Jews were all sent, as they weren't allowed to mix with the other Venetians. In WWII many of the Jews were taken by the Nazis, but a few still live there today. It is a very run down area and looks very poor, but it's good to go there to get a feel of history and imagining how they lived there.