Is Italy Overrated?

Well, it depends what you are looking for on a vacation. If it’s an adventure, a visit to a country for a rich cultural experience, sports, various ethnic food, or a place off-the-beaten track, then Italy is not for you.

I had been to Italy twice before, but it was time to give it another chance, basically because my wife had never been, and she deserved to fulfill that ambition of hers. The itinerary included visits to Venice, Rome, and Florence, probably “The Big Three” if you want to single out the major touristy cities.

Let’s start with Venice. Many people love this place. Romance, food, historical sites, all come to mind when thinking about this city that is made up of a group of islands separated by canals and linked by bridges. It is also a World Heritage Site.

We had three days booked at a nice boutique hotel called the Arcadia, centrally located within walking distance of practically everything a tourist would want to see. When we climbed off the water taxi, we knew in advance we would have to drag our luggage about a hundred yards to the hotel. Not a problem. The hotel staff were pleasant and the room was comfortable, if not spectacular.

Walking is what you do in Venice, and there are plenty of narrow streets to venture down, in order to see how the locals live and go about their daily routine. We considered a ride on a gondola, until we found out the price. Maybe that’s best left for romantic couples and honeymooners to capture the moment and brag to friends, “Guess what we did?” There are plenty of historic buildings and landmarks to see, such as Piazza San Marco, Rialto Bridge, Horses of Saint Mark, Grand Canal, and of course St. Mark’s Basilica. A long day of walking and you can see all of the above. St. Mark’s Basilica may have to be left for another day, depending on the line-up to enter. On the day we went, it was ridiculously long.

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Herein lies the problem. After a long day out on the streets seeing all the sites and soaking in the atmosphere, you may be asking yourself, “So what shall I do tomorrow?”

Well think about that decision over dinner. Restaurants are in abundance. If you like pizza, then you’re in hog heaven. We picked out one that seemed to be popular by the amount of people eating there, and it looked attractive with its indoor and outdoor seating. Beer and pizza sounds almost too American-like, but that is what I ordered. My wife had a glass of wine with her pizza. The list of pizzas on the menu was fairly extensive, maybe about twenty variants. On further inspection, the reason there are so many is because the difference between them is a single ingredient. Mushrooms included is called a different name that one with them not included. We selected one from the menu with the most ingredients and when it arrived at the table, it was so sparsely populated with meat and vegetables, with the perimeter of the crust void of any sauce or cheese, it was a disappointment. Pizza Hut, Papa Johns, and Dominos have no worries if these guys try to set up shop in the USA.

I was never a great fan of Italian food, and after eating at restaurants in one of Italy’s most prized tourist destinations, I am still not. It was almost impossible to find a restaurant that did not sell pizza. I tried a variety of restaurants during my stay, high end and low end, but I was guilty of forcing myself to enjoy any of it. In summary, the food I thought was bland and pretty much all the same wherever we went, but just presented differently.

We took the water taxi to Murano, the center of the glass blowing industry in Italy. The town itself is pretty drab, but we did get to see how glass products are made, and some are pretty elaborate, but also very expensive. This did not excite us at all, to the extent where we were ready to leave the island after the craftsman had made a jar.

In summary, if you have to go to Venice, make it a short trip, say two days at the most. It’ll be enough.

Next up was Rome. This was my second visit. As in capital cities around the World, traffic congestion is there through daylight hours. We stayed at the Artemide Hotel in a good location in the city center. Actually it was next door to an Irish Pub. I know, it sounds like it was well planned in advance. No trip to Rome is complete without a visit to the Vatican and St. Peters Basilica. For Catholics the World over, this is the place to visit. When you stand in St. Peters Square, you can’t help but be awestruck by the sculptures, and grandness of it all. You’ve seen the images on TV many times, but being there is completely different. There was a massive line up of people to enter St. Peter’s Basilica. Devout Catholics come from every corner of the World to see this place. They spend their hard earned money to buy expensive plane tickets and stay in hotels that are definitely not cheap. For some, I am sure it is a once in a life time event, something they have being saving for, for many years. They arrive and line up for maybe an hour to reach the entrance, and then are asked to pay to get in. This bothers me. As rich as the Catholic Church is, which if not known already, is evidenced by being there. You can’t help but think the place oozes money, so why do they charge an entrance fee to their lifetime followers, after they travelled so far. Wouldn’t an optional donation be more appropriate? After all, many of them attend church on Sunday and donate to the cause then. They’ve paid their dues.

The Sistine Chapel is one of the highlights of the Vatican, especially the artwork of Michelangelo on the ceiling. Outside of the chapel it specifically says, “No photographs”. Flash photography can damage intricate artwork over time, and Michelangelo’s work is priceless, so one would think the authorities would do a better job in stopping disrespectful tourists doing this until their heart’s content. When I was there, I just found this unacceptable that some people knowingly did something wrong. I tapped a couple of people on their shoulder and wagged my finger. Talking was not allowed either, but people engaged in conversation. I was embarrassed for them.

I have been to Hindu and Buddhist temples quite a few times, where removing shoes is required and photography is forbidden. Never have I seen anyone break the rules in these sacred places. With regards to the Sistine chapel, in an effort to preserve what is an extremely valuable asset, they should make people surrender their cameras and phones before entering. It may increase the lines, but since everyone waited an hour outside before entering in the first place and traveled extensive distances to be there, I doubt that anyone would walk away upset, if they had to temporarily hand over their electronics. It’s manageable, and they can afford to put a few check-in desks at the chapel’s entrance.

In the Vatican’s vicinity are the souvenir shops, where people can spend more money buying a multitude of trinkets, tee shirts, and books, thus earning a few more Euros for the Vatican?

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The Coliseum is a huge attraction and we were fortunate that it was only a 20 minute walk from the hotel. It was my second visit there, and again it was under renovation. However that did not deter me from entering. It’s a wonderful piece of architecture built of stone, and it’s recognized as the largest amphitheater in the World.

It was historically a place for all things macabre, such as gladiator fighting, animal hunts, and executions. Sometimes a gladiator went face-to-face with a half-starved lion with a bad attitude. That could not have been a pretty site. The floor is exposed, so you can see all of the rooms and prisons below, where they kept the gladiators and wild animals.

There are many other historical sites to see in Rome as well as markets and museums, so if you are Christian and love historical buildings, then Rome is the place for you. The vast majority of restaurants serve pizza and other typical Italian dishes, but being a capital city, it did have a smattering of other ethnic establishments. We found an Indian restaurant down some side street, which was above average, and was a welcome change from the bland Italian cuisine.

In my opinion, Rome is a city where you must go at least once in your life, but there is no compelling reason to go back, because nothing will have changed since your previous visit. Just take plenty of photos and videos, but not in the Sistine Chapel.

The best way to travel to Florence from Rome is by train. Take a break from being up in the air, and enjoy the views of the Italian countryside.

Florence was my favorite of the three major cities. We stayed at the Hotel Degli Orafi, which achieved some notoriety from the movie “A Room with a View”, Its location is excellent on the Arno River with a short walk to the Ponte Vecchio Bridge. It is also close to everything you would want to walk to, including historical sites, restaurants, and the Piazzale Michelangelo. What is admirable about Florence, is that the city has declined modernization, and you get the feeling you are seeing it as it was a century ago.

Don't buy jewelry here at Ponte Vecchio Bridge in Florence

The Ponte Vecchio Bridge has this unique 3 segmented arch design that makes a great photo. Very expensive jewelry shops reside on the bridge itself, where the only benefit to buying anything there is actually saying so to other people. The Piazza dell Signoria is a large area with notable sculptures, including Michelangelo’s Statue of David. If you want to people watch while enjoying some classic Italian food and wine, this is the place to be. The view from Piazzale Michelangelo shows Florence form a distance, and you can see from the roof tops, that modern buildings are not part of the city’s culture. We found one restaurant slightly outside of the commercial area that was very nice with reasonable food. There I said it, “Italian food that was reasonable”. As with many of these restaurants, and I noticed the same in Rome and especially Venice, the tables are crammed in so tightly that any private or intimate conversation with your guest is impossible.

I think most of us will agree, that if you enjoy a place so much, you’ll want to go back. My enjoyment barometer was stuck at the midpoint. While religious folk and history buffs of Italy will love the place, it’s probably not for the more adventurous types and people who enjoy places that are off-the-beaten track and are rich in culture.

Venice gets the lowest marks of the three for me, because I think it’s basically boring.

I’ve done the Italian Job and I am happy with that. Onward.

 

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