This article has taken me more than two years to write. Writers are known to be lazy and procrastinators but this one tops it all. I am so happy that I was able to visit Italia before Covid hit and changed our world forever. We now live in a dystopian reality. I wanted to capture some thoughts and memories before they vanish from my mind. I do not know if Italy will ever be the same again, and thus wish to enshrine my trip in words so that others are able to partake some part of this nectar that I experienced during my time there.
I was having a severe back pain in Mumbai as we were planning our dream holiday to Italy. I had gone for a KalariPayattu class in Bandra, Mumbai with an actor friend early one morning and hadn’t stretched much before the class. The result of which was a severe back pain after the intensive class. Adding fuel to the fire, I called my enthusiastic yoga instructor/physiotherapist for a massive stretching session, which made things worst. I needed bed-rest, and started going for physiotherapy session at Nanavati Hospital, near my house, which greatly helped.
Smooth and scenic landing at Genoa airport.
Me and Sandy had been planning this trip since a long time. Our dream trip to Italy. Our flight tickets had been booked many months in advance (that way you get the best deals) and it was all non-refundable. Sandy, my best friend and co-traveller was furious at me, “How do you always get yourself in such situations? Trust you to do this..etc. etc.” I was nervous as we had roughly planned a one-month holiday in Italy and my back didn’t look good at all. I love the walking that one is able to do in European cities, and kept saying to myself that there is no point to go if I have to be confined at a hotel room with a bad back.
We finally left with some trepidation. We hadn’t a single reservation for a hotel nor had booked any airbnb. Only major international and internal flights had been booked one of them on a whim, after seeing a map of Italy on google. Since we had booked a Mumbai-Amserdam-Mumbai return, We booked Amsterdam-Genoa, since we were to meet our Italian friends in Genoa and then Palermo seemed like the farthest place south in Sicily, so I booked a Palermo-Amsterdam return flight ticket. I had visited Italy several times in the past when I studied in hotel school in Switzerland (“Les Roches”) but it was only 3-4 day trips to bigger cities and tourist places like Roma, Venice, Milan etc. Plus that was 24 years ago when I was 18, I was eager to explore Italy at my ripe age of 42. This time the idea was to get deeper into the skin of Italy and explore the country side and small towns.
Our first weekend stop was spent in Amsterdam with a dear friend, Rudi Kuhn, who lives there. Rudi is of Surinamese descent and a gracious host in his beautiful apartment in the city center. Rudi comes often to India and is familiar with the Indian culture hence coming from India and staying with him, there is a sense of informality, which I like very much! He has been an actor, is an expert in Vedic numerology and and a natural health care therapist amongst many talents that he has honed and been gifted with.
Rudi and Sandy in Amsterdam
I told Rudi about my back, he smiled and told me to lie down and that he would “fix” it. I was scared and told Rudi not to use any sudden movements, because I had a long trip ahead, which I was afraid could be further jeopardized. After faking some massage moves and making me very relaxed. Rudi suddenly out of nowhere takes one leg of mine and pulls it outward very hard. I was screaming in pain, “Rudiiii, I told you no sudden moves!!!” He smiled peacefully and said, “I have fixed it, now don’t move for another 10 minutes, and continue to lie down.” I was miraculously cured of the back pain. He had truly “fixed” it. This was the start of a dream voyage to Italy that I will surely be unable to forget in this lifetime at least. The leg fix by Rudi was an “aperitivo” for the next one month of what was to come. Little did I know that I was going to Italy to be healed on a physical, mental and soul level!!
The landing in Genoa airport was smooth. We were greeted by Aldo and Patrizia, a middle-aged couple, and friends of Sandy, who had stayed in his villa in South Goa while visiting India (www.turiyavilla.com) and had promised to return the hospitality when he would visit Italy. In fact they told Sandy to visit Italy in the month of September just after the end of the main tourist season, when the hospitality infrastructure is more relaxed and winding down towards a closure in the winter months. This was one of the best suggestions as the temperature was just perfect, not too hot and not too cold, and the tourists were less.
Unfortunately, at the airport they informed us that Aldo’s brother was in a serious car accident in Florence and so they would not be able to show us around as planned. We drove to their very artistic apartment in a small Italian fishing village called “Camogli” on the Italian Riviera not very far away from Genoa. They graciously handed us the keys to the apartment, took us out for an Italian dinner and wine, and said we could stay for however long we wanted to and left the next day. Our entire planning was based on the advice we were going to receive from Aldo and Patrizia, and now that was gone with them.
So basically we spent the next 5 days enjoying the start of our holiday. There was no pressure to do too much like a jam-packed minute-by-minute itinerary. I slept and ate delicious seafood and we cooked at the apartment. We mulled over our route for the next one-month in Italy while I helped myself to some local wines. Camogli was a quaint town with a very relaxed pace of life. We started speaking to locals and figuring out what to do? How to do it? Where to go? The views from the apartment were fabulous and we already started to feel very “local”.
The view from the apartment in Camogli, a small Italian coast town, not too far from Genoa.
One thing I must say here is that Italians are one of the friendliest people in Western-European. They are genuinely warm, not xenophobic and very creative people. We struck up conversations with random people in bars, at coffee shops, in train stations and on trains. Our airbnb hosts were friendly. Co-travellers even friendlier like the Brazilian couple we met in Montepulciano who were into the Hindu culture. Even though language is a barrier, it is amazing how much can still be said without the use of words. Talking to people helped us firm up the plans for next one month in Italy. They were happy to give tips and take out time to get to know us genuinely.
There were many small towns alongside the coast accessible by local trains from Camogli like Ravello, Porto-Fino, Cinque Terre (not highly recommended at all as there were too many tourists esp. old yankees talking loudly in a slang which was such a put off, and we returned back after visiting the second village amongst five) etc. that we explored from Camogli. Genoa seemed a bit offbeat compared to the bigger cities of Italy but had a nice “European” “less touristy” feel to it. Historically, It was a major trading hub on the Western coast of Italy until for some reason it went into decline and Venice became more prominent on the Eastern Coast.
Sandy went and helped out in a restaurant for a day feeding into his desire to hone his already excellent cooking skills. The chef/owner had stayed in his villa in Goa. There he met some American tourists, who said we must have a car to drive around Italy or we are doomed since public transport in the rural areas is scarce and that’s really where we wanted to go, off-the-beaten-path. Though now to think of it “The Rick Steves Guide” that I had been reading before our trip had mentioned the same thing (a good resource to carry along for restaurant recommendations, things to do etc.)
Oranges fallen from the tree at a train station at Ravello.
I had driven before in Europe, when I used to study in Suisse, but that was 20 years ago, and I was very nervous about driving esp. in Italy because they drive so fast. I mustered up my courage and we went to Genoa, rented a car, and we were off to the most incredible trip of a lifetime. The American tourist saved us, because we would have never been able to explore Italy the way we did. We travelled more than 1,200 kms from Genoa to Salerno by car and then Salerno to Catania by train, an epic journey across the length of the incredible country.
We booked our airbnb’s a night or two before. We spoke to other tourists, our hosts and locals to figure out where to go next and where to stay even. The recommendation to visit Lucca sprung from that. A polish tourist near Florence told us where to stay in Roma. It was again on the suggestion of an Italian we met in Rome, that we took the train from Amalfi Coast to Sicily since he said it would be a very long and tiring drive. This worked out pretty well since we were free of commitments. We could change the plan immediately if we felt we wanted to stay longer in a certain place or even change the route of the trip. So that was a big advantage of not having micro-planned the trip and it kept the sense of spontaneity alive.
At our car rental at Genao, start of our road trip.
There is no doubt that Italy is a gorgeous country whose food and culture has spread all over the world but what we found out strangely is that they are so much into their own food that there are very few Asian or other specialty cuisine restaurants in Italy. That is how much they love their own food! We also realized this the hard way, as we tried an Indian restaurant in Roma (after craving for some spices) and the food was outrageously bad! Also, craving for some spicy food, we did manage to find a beautiful Thai restaurant on the outskirts of Catania in Sicily and it was an expensive affair.
The other striking thing, coming from India is that Pizza is not served in most restaurants, in fact very few specialty restaurants serve it. There is a lot more to Italian food than pizzas and pasta. Italian food tends to have really good options for Pescatarians like me, since the coastal towns have ample seafood pastas with clamps and calamari (the best ones we had in Catania in Sicily on outdoor street cafes and restaurants). Also for the Indian palette which doesn’t prefer too much of meat, there are always many vegetarian and vegan options Italian food. Gelato is available everywhere, and I had my daily dose of Italian ice cream, and half a bottle of wine with dinner to rock me to sleep!
Recommended Restaurants where we ate!
1) Florence – Self-service Ristorante Leonardo was a fantastic quick, tasty and fresh option located very close to the Duomo. It had a buffet style with lasagna, fresh salads, pastas and desserts. The billing is fast at the end of the buffet line. Stephano and Luciano run the place with great enthusiasm.
2) Napoli – the birth place of pizzas, thin-crust and wood-burning ovens. Ristorante Pizzeria Gorizia 1916 is the original one. Its been around since 1916. We sat outside on the street.
3) Catania – Thai princess – Beautiful restaurant just on the outskirts of the city towards the train station, a bit of a walk from the downtown area, but certainly worth it, if you tired of Italian food and need something spicy.
4) Tuscany – Castello Di Verrazzano – Greve in Chianti – A beautiful Agro-tourism place in Tuscany region with the best wines, and farm to table food. Not to miss this one!
5) Dal Bardo – Lucca – a street side cafe in Lucca.
Pic -Monteriggioni – agro tourism restaurant
Tuscany – the heart chakra of Italy.
I felt the happiest in Tuscany. The countryside, winding roads, quaint towns, vineyards and olive orchards, walled towns and Umbrella Pine trees (which almost look manicured) makes every frame look like a picture postcard. I learned that “Italy” is a recent phenomenon as it has always been different kingdoms often ruled by other neighboring countries (reminded me of India). When Italy was finally united, they picked the dialogue of Italian from the town of Florence and made that into their national language. Tuscany has that very central feeling to it, the center of architecture and arts and everything good the represents the Italian culture.
We made our first stop at Pisa, driving down at break-neck speeds on the autobahns of Italy starting from Genoa. Many a times, we got off the highways and took the side roads that passed through quaint and picturesque towns. As we strolled off the main attraction in Pisa, we wandered to a lawn with the statue of the Capitoline Wolf, the mythical she-wolf suckling the twins, Romulus and Remus, from the legend of the founding of Rome. A man who was the caretaker there of the museum explained us the history of the statue.
We met a beautiful Italian lady in a café outside of Pisa in the quiet lanes, where she told us that Pisa is a student city with many universities located here. She had never travelled outside of her country and originated from the island of Sardinia. She spoke about the mafia and that it’s very real in Italy. Somehow I felt that she might have had some personal experiences with the mafia in Sardinia. There was sadness about her demeanour, which she had learnt to hide very well but I picked it up. She said how lucky we were to be able to travel like this, as she wanted to do so too. So apparently the islands still have the mafia presence. We realised this in Sicily. (More about this later in the article)
Square of Miracles, Pisa.
Before nightfall we made our way to our airbnb accommodation in a small village town called Carmignano, west of Florence. It was extremely difficult to find this place with many one-ways and winding roads. I drove bravely in the dark of the night. The old rustic house seemed haunted but the host was a very sweet lady called Eva. She had been to India many years ago. She told us about her father who kept giving away the family land to the local municipality until they were left with only this house. She worked a day job, and ran the bnb too. She was burning the candle at both ends. She and her son had a very scary dog that was always locked up, and we were told never to make a mistake and enter the house where she lived.
Carmignano was a beautiful small town with quaint restaurants and wine bars. There was a village festival the next day with performances on floats, which was really beautiful to watch.
We made a day visit to Florence, and ate a grand buffet at one of the restaurants recommended by the Rick Steves guidebook. After going to the town and seeing all the tourists in Florence, I was glad that we were staying away from the selfie-obssessed crowds. Our host, Eva, recommended that we see the walled city of Lucca and I’m really glad that we did.
Lucca, Vinci and San Gimmignano
Next morning we drove back in the direction of Pisa to visit the walled city of Lucca. On the way there we visited a beautiful quaint town called Vinci, which was the birthplace of the great Renaissance artist, Leonardo Da Vinci. There was a museum with various exhibits on his life and art. Many of his contraptions and models, which became forerunners to aircrafts and various other scientific inventions, were on display. Other than the swarms of American tourists, it was a really nice place to visit and learn about the life of one of the great artists of recent history.
At Piazza del Campo in Siena.
Lucca was a charming town straight out of a European fairy-tale with beautiful boutique shopping, free art galleries and horse-driven carriages for tourists. The massively walled city was never bombed in the world wars and not involved in a war since 1430. That probably explains why the city is so well preserved. Thus the distinct Renaissance wall is a stark feature with very distinctive entrances with arches in stone. The wall is enjoyed as community garden roof and is ideal for a bike ride though we didn’t have time for that. We really enjoyed our time there eating Bruschetta’s and striking up conversation with the half-American waiter, in the outdoor restaurants and drinking Camparis by the dozen. We had to reach our camping site near San Gimmignano for an overnight stay, and by the time we left Lucca it had gotten dark.
Above, square at Siena.
We made our way through the dark of the night. Luckily, we had taken a Matrix Card from India, with unlimited data for the entire month. It would have been impossible to navigate the roads without google maps/internet since there is no one to ask on the roads, and especially in the nighttime.
A cross at Vinci.
Tall structures at San Gimmigiano.
Clock tower at Vinci.
We reached the camping site, which was a really interesting and local concept. There were “parked” camper vans with beds and a small bathroom. People also drove into the property with camper vans. There were sports facilities like Swimming, basketball and football. We were famished and walked into the packed on-site restaurant. I can never forget this as we opened the door as if the entire restaurant just turned and looked at us, as if they had never seen “brown skin” before. It must have a very local joint. We finally got a table since they were awfully busy, but the food was worth the wait. The experience of staying in these camping sites really made my heart weak. It was like a club or a community living. Very local.
An exhibit at Vinci museum.
Old-fashioned carriage rides at Lucca.
San Gimmignano was one of the most charming old towns that I have ever visited. It was full of hoards of Japanese tourists. I have not seen something better preserved. It is the epitome of Tuscan hill town with 14 medieval towers still standing (out of a total of 72 original ones) is perfectly preserved mousetrap. In the 13th century, back in the days of Romeo and Juliet, warring families used these towers to keep watch. I have personally never seen this type of architecture and beauty. The public bathrooms were fancy but expensive. A huge problem in Italy is the lack of public toilets. If you want to use one in a restaurant, you are obliged to buy something. For a country that is so dependent on tourism to run its economy there should be many more public toilets at every nook and corner for tourists. We did pee on the roadsides many a times while we drove across this gorgeous country in our rented car.
Montepulciano and Countryside experiences
After doing another overnight stay in a camping site on the outskirts of Siena, we finally started to make our way to the vineyard countryside of Montepulciano. A slight climb up to hilly areas make the drives extremely scenic here. We were staying in a very beautiful old chalet situated in the midst of vineyard just few kilometers drive from the city of Montepulciano. The grapes were all ready for harvest, and migrant labors were already at it.
The beautiful flat landscapes in Tuscany.
The scenic drives and quaint small towns like Monticchiello with very boutique restaurants overlooking vineyards with white washed walls and exotic landscaping were a treat to the eyes. The actual city of Montepulciano was filled with cobbled streets, boutique artisan shops and public sculptures. There were not too many tourists, and it was a breeze to walk around and have a feast for the eyes. We met a Brazilian couple who were also staying at the same airbnb as ours with ancestry from Italy. They cooked a dinner for us in the adjoining room to us, while we got some Italian wine, and chatted till late in the night. It was his dream to visit India, and mine to visit Brazil. He taught Yoga and Tantra in Sao Paolo.
After 3 nights in this dream like location, it was time to leave again. We said good-bye to the huge furry cats that came into the rooms and ate and slept with us, and took the road South to reach Roma. We stopped at a beautiful Agro-tourismo restaurant for lunch on the way to Roma. The drive to Rome was not short. We experienced such a torrential downpour of rain that I was sure that this is unusual but it seems that such heavy rains are common. Our car shook on the autobahn as the downpour was so stormy and frightening.
Cats in our airbnb in Montepulciano.
A scenic walk at Montepulciano.
A cat crosses a fiat scooter at Montecchiello, a quaint near Montepuliciano, where we went for lunch.
Roma – what has become of you?
Rome was actual the most disappointing part of the entire trip. Full of tourists. Dirty. I actually found the energies in Rome very off, dark and dense. There was a melancholic smell in the air and I was feeling depressed coming from the country side of Italy with all the nature and fresh air.
The hotel that we had booked which one of the co-guests of our previous airbnb near Florence had recommended had a scary looking single mother manning it with a Rottweiler Dog that was tied up and looked very ferocious. There were bed bugs in the room and so we had to check out and move into another place near by. We were lucky to find something last minute, which was really nice. The owner said he would do a refund but we didn’t get any. I kept following that up with booking.com even after I returned to India.
The Bangladeshi migrants on the streets of Rome are a huge eyesore and embarrassment especially for us, coming from a South Asian country. There are so many of them, selling wares on the roadside, haggling and being a nuisance to tourists. We walked the entire city on foot and went to all the tourist spots. There was a huge line to get into the Colosseum, so we didn’t go inside. There was Indian Sadhu hovering above a rope in the air on the tourist street going to the Colosseum, which made me laugh a lot. Rome looked dead. As if someone had just sucked out everything good from the soul of the city. I heaved a sigh of relief as we packed our bags to leave the next day for Napoli, where two friends were joining us for a sojourn on the Amalfi Coast for 5 days.
Napoli – the birthplace of Pizza and the Amalfi Coast.
Andy and Fabien, met us at the Napoli airport. They were flying in from Barcelona. Andy is South-African but now lives in Europe and Fabien is French. We had met them during their extended stay in Mumbai, where Andy’s company put them up for six months at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Colaba, what a dream! And we made several trips to Goa, even driving down once from Goa to Mumbai after the clock struck 12 in the new years eve.
I was happy that I didn’t have to drive anymore, and Andy took over the wheel, while I could stare outside the window. Also, it was good that I was wasn’t driving since the winding, steep and small roads of this area should be maneuvered by a seasoned driver like Andy. After pizza lunch at an iconic restaurant in Napoli we left for our Airbnb on the Amalfi Coast for the next five days situated at Conca-dei-Marini a mid-place on the southern coast, not too far from anything.
The four of us, group photo.
I did want to visit Capri since I had seen photos of those “Grotos” with their azure blue and green colors but there was one very near to where we were staying and it was a pleasure to visit one. We went for many beach days at Amalfi and nearby beaches. The highlight was the quaint town of Positano which had the best restaurants, night life, hotels, walks, boutique shopping and the quaintness of the town made it a writer’s delight. If I visit this area again I would surely stay there.
The beautiful manicured gardens at Ravello situated on the Amalfi Coast.
Positano, with its artistic street corners and shops.
Winding small lanes of Positano.
We did a day-trip to see the ruins of Pompei where we met with a girl-friend from Mumbai who were visiting at the same time. The ruins of Pompei were a treat to the eyes and I thoroughly enjoyed our day there going through all the well preserved (due to a volcano eruption covering and hence preserving the ruins, reminded me of Khajurao/Kamasutra in India, though preservation happened in different ways) informative exhibits, streets, old stone structures all on a nice sunny day was memorable.
Old friends meeting in a foreign land.
A visiting friend from Mumbai, Reshma Jain along with her Italian guide, who boasted about the size of Italian ehem.
With Sandy, Andy and Fabien at the ruins of Pompei.
The Amalfi coast was nice but also a bit pretentious for me personally. A play ground for the elite. The season was winding down and it was getting cold, and I wasn’t sad when the day came to leave. We said goodbye to our dear friends Andy and Fabien who were such a great company, and they dropped us off to our train station at Salerno, to go further South, to warmer climate.
Ruins of Pompei.
Italian trader with the big dick.
Pompei and Positano views.
Grotto near our airbnb.
Sicily – the real treasure of Italy.
Here is where I lost my heart. I put on my headphones while on the train to Sicily and listened to the melancholic Italian themed music of “GodFather” while we winded our way down to the southern most part of Italy. The weather got better, the complexion of the people got darker, and the food got much better.
Our train was dismantled, and put on a boat and then again put together when we arrived at the island of Sicily. A local on the train, who had visited India, told us that the Mob didn’t want a bridge across so that connectivity remains poor and they are able to do what they do! It seemed that islands still have a strong mafia presence. There was an eerie chill reminiscent of the mafia in the air. The silence of mafia. Almost like god, there, but not there.
An ancient Greek Amphitheatre view from our airbnb.
The train gets onto a ship/boat to cross over the Sicily.
We were staying in Catania in a 500 year old building with a view of an ancient Greek Amphitheatre. What I love about Europe that like India everything can be very old and thus antique and valuable but there is so much of it, that it is not very precious anymore. The people in Catania were a great mix of Arab, Pakistani, Greek and many other nationalities. I felt very much at home, and spoke to strangers very often. Many thought I’m an Arab and were surprised when I told them that I’m from India. There were many nice streets for shopping. We went to the fish market near the town square which was a treat to the eyes to see the array different jewels of the Mediterranean sea.
Fish market wares.
We craved for some spicy food because it had been over 40 days in Europe, and my Indian spice craving was kicking in. We found a nice local Thai Restaurant, which was expensive.
Finally it was time to say goodbye to this most beautiful country, and most friendly and loveable human beings, which is rare these days. We took a bus from Catania to Palermo, and stayed at a beautiful Airbnb with an ocean view. Palermo was gorgeous and buzzing with tourists. There were many Bangladeshi immigrants, and they had a whole road parallel to the main road, which was their hideout with restaurants and shops. It was wonderful to just walk around the city and explore the shops, flea markets, square sculptures, public gardens, restaurants etc. In the main Cathedral in Palermo, a lady came up to me and started to ask me directions to a place nearby. I told her that I don’t speak Italian. It was like parting gift from Italy, I felt so local and comfortable.
Italian Fish Market.
Street dancing in Catania. Was so terribly romantic.
Quick reference guide with overnight stays.
Italy 2019 September, Pre-Covid Era
18th September 2019, Thursday night – Mumbai to Amsterdam.
22nd September 2019, Sunday – Flight from Amsterdam to Genoa, Italy, overnight at Camogli. Made Day trips to Cinque Terre, Rapello, Portofino etc.
26th September, Thursday – Left from Genoa by car after visiting the leaning tower of Pisa in Pisa, overnight in Carmignano, rural area west of Florence city.
27th September, Friday – Day trip to the city of Florence. At night attended the village fair. Overnight Carmignano.
28th September, Saturday – Leonardo di Vinci museum in Vinci plus walled city of Lucca day visit, overnight San Gimmignano at a camper van site.
29th September, Sunday – day visit to the city of San Gimmignano, lunch at agro-tourismo, overnight outskirts of Sienain a camper van site.
30Th September, Monday – Siena day-visit after which drove to Montepulciano – overnight airbnb at vineyards near the town.
1st October, Tuesday – town of Montepulciano and Monticchiello + nearby areas. Overnight same airbnb.
2nd October, Wednesday – overnight Roma – bed bugs in hotel bed, had to move hotels.
3rd October, Thursday – overnight Roma.
4th October, Friday – overnight Roma.
5th October, Saturday – Left early morning for Napoli airport, picked up friends – lunch in Naples, pizza joint, then left for Amalfi coast. Stayed at Conca-di-Marini in an airbnb.
6th October, Sunday – Amalfi town, Postiano. Overnight Conca-di-Marini.
7th October, Monday – Ravello gardens. Overnight Conca-di-Marini.
8th October, Tuesday – Ruins of Pompeii, drove back via Sorrento and Positano. Overnight Conca-dei-Marini.
9th October, Wednesday – Blue Grotto, beach day. Overnight Conca-Dei-Marini.
10th October, Thursday – From Salerno train station to Catania, Sicily. Overnight in Catania in a bnb overlooking 2,000 year old Greek amphitheater.
11th October, Friday – Catania overnight.
12th October, Saturday – Catania overnight.
13th October, Sunday – Bus to Palermo. Overnight Palermo.
14th October, Monday – Palermo city sight-seeing. Overnight Palermo.
15th October, Tuesday – Train to Cinsi for overnight near airport.
16th October, Wednesday – Back to Amsterdam.
22nd October, Tuesday – back to Mumbai.