Friday, May 31, 2013

Italy In General

We’ve been planning for our Italy trip for months now and yes, while it was a tough one to plan for, it was a very rewarding trip! We flew by Emirates which was such a change from budget airlines we've been travelling on for some time.

In our short 10 full days in Italy, we covered Rome, Cinque Terre, Pisa, Florence and Venice. And as mentioned before, we had to cut one day from Rome and extended one day in Venice due to the General Elections. Otherwise, three days in Rome would have been better and 2 days in Venice sufficient. Still, we managed to pack in quite a fair bit into Rome and took a relaxing time in Venice to wander around. 

Let me start off with the general things in Italy.

Food was generally good as we enjoyed the Nutella croissants, pasta, pizza, focaccia breads and antipasti with melon. And the gelato every day of course! We budgeted about €15 per person per meal so while breakfast could be as cheap as €3, we could then splurge a little for dinner that day.
All sorts of pasta: spaghetti, ravioli, lasagne, gnocchi (I didn't take a photo of our risotto)
Melon with parma ham (our favourite!), anchovies (a little weird but still okay), focaccia  with some ham and rocket and osso bucco. I absolutely love their tomatoes!
Sweet stuff : chocolate/Nutella croissant, tiramisu and gelato. I had the choc croissant and gelato almost every day.
Weather in May
The days took turns from sunny hot to nagging rain the next day. This also means I wasn’t very happy with my photos from this trip with the grey skies. Thankfully I brought my umbrella, a rain-proof coat and sun block. Temperatures were beautiful between 17 – 20s. As we moved north, the nights were slightly chillier. Dawn was at about 6am and sun set was around 8pm so we had good long days to move about.

There were tourists EVERYWHERE! They were mainly Americans and groups of Japanese. I could hardly take photos without having people in it. Aside from the tourists, the Italians are generally warm and friendly. We encountered two unfriendly people in Venice on our first day there though. And I used to hear friends saying Italian men were very good looking, I can now say I have seen them with my own eyes! A lot of them looked like George Michael with a stubble and sunglasses. Swoon!

We were also told to watch out for gypsies but we found many Bangladeshis who were peddling their wares at every point of interest. They didn't really come up to us though (maybe they knew we were cheapo tourists who won't buy their goods!).

Italian trains
Since I bought my tickets online earlier, getting around Italy was a breeze. I must say one of our initial achievements of our trip was to get to the train station at the Rome Airport, use the machines to print our ticket, time stamp it and get into the train within a few minutes. Only when the train shut its doors and started moving did I ask the person beside me if the train was headed to Roma Termini! LOL

Another achievement for us was our train trip to Manarola from Rome. We had to switch trains in La Spezia with a 10 minute gap. We needed to print our ticket, time stamp it and find the correct train all within that 10 minutes. Worse, our train from Rome was slightly delayed by 3-5 minutes. Thankfully, I pre-printed our tickets at Roma Termini, rushed down from the train at La Spezia to time stamp it, followed the general crowd into the train and hoped it was right train before it moved (as there were two trains on the same platform).

One thing to note though, when we got to Roma Termini to take this trip to Manarola, this guy came up to me (rather forcefully) and brought me to the correct platform and then demanded for money for his help and scolded us for giving him too little. It was rather frightening and KS was worried he would grab my bag. On hindsight, this guy did help me understand how to read the Italian train schedule, as it would have taken me some time as I was looking for the train to La Spezia on the screen when the displayed name would be the last station the train would stop.

For example:
Train Schedule: Our train name on the screen follows the name of the last station it would stop at. So ours was called Pisa Centrale even though we were getting out at Pisa S.Rossore. This schedule shows the stops this train makes.

So on the screens, you would need to refer to the train for Pisa Centrale for the correct platform. I learnt this from the guy at Roma Termini. My train from Roma Termini to La Spezia was Genova P.P. and I would have taken some time to figure that out if it weren't for him.
Validation Machine. Insert your ticket in the middle slot to have it time stamped before boarding. 
Touristy Stuff
I used to think people normally backpack in Europe but KS and I were the rare ones carrying backpacks. Still, it was quite helpful when we had to climb stairs, steep slopes in Manarola or bridges in Venice. We bought a Skip the Line Tour of Vatican from Viator and were glad we did as there were hordes of people lining up to go in! Plus there were so many touts trying to get you to sign up for a Skip the Line Vatican Tour right outside the gates.

Unfortunately, we weren’t careful when we got to Colosseum and was made to pay for a tour at €13 per pax (the official tour inside was only €5) after we asked someone outside who looked like he was wearing an official tag where to queue for the tour.

Still, there was a silver lining to this because it led us to the most interesting tour thereafter which made Rome my favourite place of all! I'll explain this in a location by location blogpost later.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Planning for Italy

After many months of putting off visiting Italy, we finally bought our flight tickets in mid March to travel in early May. I didn't think it would be a problem getting rooms since we have 1.5 months before we travelled. But boy was I wrong!

We spent many weekends and weekday nights trying to secure rooms all over Rome, Cinque Terre, Florence and Venice with a budget and some pre-requisites such as an attached bathroom but was quite challenging. Many places have about 3-4 rooms and they're all pretty snapped up especially if we wanted to stay somewhere for like 4 nights.

My usual favourite sites like or don't quite have the choices I was looking for. I found TripAdvisor to be quite a help and there are quite a lot of B&B that have their own sites so it's quite hard to find them in a collective site.

Here are, so far, the most useful sites other than TripAdvisor for finding the perfect rooms:

We've spoilt ourselves with renting a whole loft in Rome, a room overlooking the gorgeous sea in Cinque Terre which left my budget of RM400 per night in tatters. So it had to be cheaper accommodation for Florence and Venice.

One thing I've discovered is that some rooms may have just a shower tucked in the corner of the room, no toilet, just the shower. Very strange! And the toilets mainly would have bidets! This is going to be interesting as I've never tried using one before. Also, most places accept only cash so I need to start looking for my body pouches to avoid pick pockets.

So that was just the room bookings. I then spent another two weekends figuring out the trains and buying them online. Thanks to this site called italylogue, I found where I could buy my tickets with ease.

There are two types of tickets which I bought, one is a ticket with reservation (time and seats allocated) and the other is an open ticket whereby it is valid 2 months from the date of purchase.

Thankfully (somewhat), most of my tickets are open tickets so when we had to change our flights to enable us to vote in the next Malaysian General Elections, I only forfeit one day of Rome from my schedule and not my train tickets too.

Anyway, this holiday was one of the most researched of all our trips. So much information on the net! So many decisions to make! Yes it has been stressful but I'm enjoying the process (I can't say the same for KS who has to plan what to do, which tour to take, if we need to get a phone card etc).

Blog posts coming up on our trip.