Welcome to Italy Adventure Part 3! Same disclaimer as Part 1/2 regarding the images posted in the blog. See part 1 for full details.
Part 3 - Sorrento, Pompeii, Rome, and return to Canada
Sorrento! With the previous day's excitement behind us, we left Florence on the next leg of our adventure heading south to Sorrento. Overall I enjoyed the convenience of the Italian train system but, unfortunately for us, the furthest south we could get on the regular train lines was Naples. From Naples there is a separate train line servicing the Bay of Naples, which includes Sorrento, called the Circumvesuviana and it is very uncomfortable, often packed with standing room only, no air conditioning, and constant looping audio recordings to beware of thieves on the train. Wanting to limit our time on this line we opted to hire a private car for the transfer from Naples train station to our hotel in Sorrento, which was a nice change of pace after the 3.5 hour train ride from Florence. We arrived at our hotel around 3pm and were greeted by a spectacular view of Mount Vesuvius, Sorrento, and the Bay of Naples from the outdoor terrace of our room.
We unpacked a couple of things and then went down to the front desk to ask for some advice on what to do in Sorrento. The concierge pointed us in the direction of Piazza Tasso, the main square in Sorrento, which is home to many restaurants and lots of shopping. The square is approximately a 15 minute walk down into the town from our hotel which was situated fairly high up on the side of the cliff and the trek down offered more excellent views of the bay.
We decided the first order of business was to grab a bite to eat and a drink so we picked one of the many good looking restaurants that lined the square. We enjoyed some pizza and a couple glasses of wine while people watching. At one point an employee from the restaurant we were eating at came out to give a stray dog a few hot dogs. Very similar to the cute little train we rode around Verona earlier in the week, there was an almost identical train in Sorrento that departed from and returned to the Piazza Tasso. After finishing our meal we got on the train and went for a 20 minute ride around the heart of Sorrento accompanied by a recording that explained the significance of various landmarks.
During the train ride I saw a statue that I wanted to take a photo of but was unable to during the tour as the train never actually stopped moving. So after we were finished we tried to double back to find it but that venture ended unsuccessfully. After a little while of looking around for the statue I suggested we call it and head back up to the hotel to relax for a little bit before finding some place to have a proper dinner. We legged it out back up the hill to our hotel and then we laid down for a little nap.
We got up again a few hours later and again asked the concierge to recommend us a restaurant for dinner. As we didn’t want to walk very far the gentleman at the desk made us a reservation at a spot just across the street from the hotel. A short skip later we were seated at the restaurant which turned out to be a significantly classier place than we were expecting in our Lululemon clothes. No one seemed too bothered by our attire though and the food was very good. At this point we did not have concrete plans for the next two days in the Sorrento area though we knew we wanted to visit Pompeii, and possibly Mt. Vesuvius and Capri as well. We looked at options for a full day guided tour for both Pompeii and Vesuvius but decided we would tackle it on our own so that we didn't have to get up early enough to meet a 730am bus. We went to bed that evening with the rough plan to visit Capri the next day, and then do both Vesuvius and Pompeii the day after that before travelling to Rome.
The next morning we slept in quite a bit, and by the time we got up and ready to go out for the day it was already lunch time. We walked back down to Piazza Tasso to have lunch and plan out the rest of our day, which at this point was still taking the ferry to Capri. One of the main attractions on the island is a place called the Blue Grotto which looked very interesting but unfortunately it was closed due to the tides not cooperating. We took Capri off the table and eventually settled on splitting up Vesuvius and Pompeii and knock out Vesuvius that afternoon.
There was a lot of conflicting information that I found on the best way to get to Vesuvius, which took some weeding through before we settled on a plan. One option was to take the train to the Pompeii station, which was a tourist office, and a scheduled bus service to and from Vesuvius. The issue with this one for us was it was already fairly late in the day and the times on the bus schedule wouldn’t have worked out. We settled on option two which was to take the train to a station further up the line than Pompeii called Ercolano Scavi. Just like the rest of the time we spent on the Circumvesuviana train line the trip was uncomfortable and hot but luckily it was only 30 minute ride. We hopped off the train and immediately found a bus service to Vesuvius located just outside the station to the left.
The time was about 4:20pm when we walked into the shop and inquired about the bus service up the mountain. We were advised there was one more bus for the day that would be departing at "ten past” as he put it. A smarter man than I would have asked ten past what, but that's not how I do business and simply assumed it was ten past five o'clock. It was cash only, which we had none of, so thinking we had the better part of 40 minutes to kill we went on a walk to find an ATM. The ATM ended up being quite far from the station and took us about 20 minutes round trip. When we arrived back at the station we noticed that the other guests that had been waiting for the bus when we arrived initially were all gone. We went back inside and paid for our tickets and I finally asked when the bus would be there. The attendant casually replied that the last bus of the day had already left, and followed it up with an invitation for us to get in his personal car and go try to catch the bus.
The ride up the mountain with the guy from the bus service was an adventure in itself as we ripped up and down narrow side streets in a wild attempt to cut off the bus that we had missed. If you've ever been to Italy you know how chaotic "normal” driving is, but this was something else entirely. The juxtaposition of our driver's completely nonchalant attitude and his mad max style driving would be expected in an action movie but not so much in real life on a random Tuesday afternoon. After many blind corners taken at full speed, and passing vehicles on the narrow, twisting mountain roads we did manage to catch up to our bus. I was expecting him to somehow make the bus pull over and transfer us onto it, which would’ve been great to see the expressions on the faces of the other patrons, but the gates to Vesuvius closed 5:00pm and our new friend did not think the bus would make it to the parking lot before then. He proceeded to pass the bus and drove us all the way up the mountain himself. Talk about legendary customer service!
After we thanked our driver for his assistance, and took a minute to recover from the adrenaline filled thrill ride we had just survived, we handed in our Vesuvius tickets and began the approximately 30 minute climb from the parking lot to the crater. The parking lot sits at about 1000 meters and the total height of the mountain is just of 1280 meters, so the hiking portion wasn't very long. However, the path up to the crater was mostly loose dirt and rock which ended up being a struggle for Laura, who at some point, likely while hiking in Cinque Terre, had injured her ankle. We took our time with the walk up and eventually did make it to the crater.
About half-way up to the crater we entered the cloud layer that surrounded the top of the mountain for all of the days that we were in the Naples area, and above are some of the views on the way up just below the base of the clouds. A clearer view of the Bay of Naples would have been nice, but the light playing with the clouds provided a neat atmosphere so I didn't particularly mind.
It was significantly colder at the top of the mountain than it was down at sea level so we bundled up and took a couple pictures near the crater.
The crater was huge, unfortunately much too large to fit into a single frame as I only had my 35mm with me, and you could see steam coming out of the ground in a couple different places.
After our photoshoot we made our way back down the mountain to see if there was going to be a bus there to pick us up. We weren't sure if the bus would be there because we didn’t know if it made it through the gates before they had closed in the first place. As luck would have it the bus was there and we drove back to the train station. By some mysterious circumstance, definitely not me reading the train schedule incorrectly, we ended up on the wrong train and we were only alerted to this when an older Italian gentleman came up to us out of the blue and asked where we were going. I told him we were going to Sorrento to which he broke the news that we were on the wrong train. At the same time this was going on the guy that was sitting across from us on the train who had previously been sleeping awoke and told us we were on the correct train. What a dilemma, and apparently neither of them spoke enough English to tell us how to get on the proper train. Thankfully there was a young lady in the car who was fluent in English and explained we had to get off at an upcoming stop and switch lines, so we did.
One minor setback behind us and we were back in Sorrento and ready for dinner. I honestly believe that the hardest part of our relationship is deciding where or what to eat for any given meal which is in part a testament to how easy Laura is to be with, and part how egregiously indecisive we are when it comes to food; especially given how much we love to eat. It's a ridiculous thing for two air traffic controllers to struggle with, but there we were scurrying through Piazza Tasso looking at menu after menu without picking something. This went on for longer than I'd really care to admit but we did eventually find a place and enjoyed another excellent meal and bottle of wine. After dinner we booked a Pompeii walking tour for the following day, and walked back up to our hotel and turned in for the evening.
Pompeii! The next day was scheduled as a travel day from Sorrento to Rome, but since we had to go through Pompeii to get back to Naples to take the train to Rome we decided it would be a good opportunity to inject some efficiency into this leg of the journey and do a tour on our way through. We got up, packed our bags, walked down to Piazza Tasso for the final time to have a quick bite and then dragged our stuff onto the train and set off for Pompeii. This train ride wasn’t too bad considering we had our bags with us, and we made it to Pompeii without any fuss. We stowed our bags at the Left Luggage (again, life saving convenience if you're moving around a lot) and stopped for a beverage while we waited for our tour to start. The tour was scheduled for 2:30pm and the email I received from the tour operator after booking was very clear that the tour would start without you if you were late. Unfortunately this wasn’t actually the case and we waited an extra 25 minutes for a family to show up so we could start. This ended up meaning we could not finish the tour, as we had to run to catch a train to Naples that we would have had enough time for if the tour had started on time, but I digress.
We were walked through the city of Pompeii by an archeologist that spends half of his time guiding tours, and the other half of his time excavating the remaining 33% of the city that is still buried in ash; he was very knowledgeable and a great guide.
It was very interesting to see and hear about how the ancient inhabitants of Pompeii lived, and the marvels of architecture and engineering they were able to create thousands of years ago. Most of houses and shops were cordoned off and not accessible to the public, but the largest home in the city was partially restored and we were able to walk through it. It was definitely the highlight of the tour for me as it was just so massive and luxurious. In the above pictures there is a statue in the middle of a mosaic floor, and this was in the entrance area of the home and was the area that would collect rain water for the people living within. Somewhat sombre but also very interesting were the plaster casts they made from the negative space discovered in the ash once belonging to bodies that had since decomposed and simply left hollow cavities in the debris.
As mentioned earlier, due to the late start we had to skip the last couple points of interest on the tour and head back to the train. It was disappointing to miss the end but all in all I thoroughly enjoyed Pompeii and would highly recommend doing a guided tour if you ever visit. We left Pompeii, walked the short distance back to the train station, and were greeted by an entire platform full of people waiting for the train back to Naples. Luckily we were able to squeeze into one of the train cars but it was absolutely packed and we ended up standing for the entire hour long ride from Pompeii back to Naples with more people piling onto the train at every stop. I don't think I have ever been so uncomfortable in my entire life. It was extremely hot due to so many bodies wedged in there and no air circulation. We also had all of our luggage with us, and it was impossible to not be touching at least one stranger for the whole trip.
After what felt like a lifetime, we arrived in Naples and getting off that train was the most liberating feeling ever. We battled our way through the crowd up to the main platform area of the Naples Central Station and waited for the platform for our Rome bound train to be announced. It's more than a little bit likely that I was very bias after the worst train ride ever, but the train from Naples to Rome was amazing. It was the most comfortable train that we had taken this far on the trip, and the trip took little more than an hour screaming along at nearly 300km/hr.
Rome! And so we come to the final destination on our journey, and had four adventure filled days planned for Rome. Rome was definitely the largest and busiest city that we visited in Italy, the traffic and crowds were on an entirely different level from anything we had experienced prior. For me Rome was a bit of a mixed bag as I encountered absolutely terrible allergy symptoms that no amount of allergy medicine would help. Objectively the city should have been my favourite part of the trip, so much history, many famous landmarks to visit, and in my opinion the most interesting atmosphere, but my constant leaking nose and watering eyes soured my opinion.
The first night in Rome was a little rough but it went uphill from there. It was about 9:00pm when we arrived at our hotel which was about a 20 minute drive from the train station. We tossed our stuff in the room and headed out to try to find something to eat for dinner. We found several highly rated restaurants nearby but as we quickly discovered it's a difficult task to find a table without a reservation. We were turned away from two places before we decided to walk back to the hotel and try our luck at the rooftop restaurant. I don’t believe that I have ever been to an eating establishment where there was actually not one item on the menu that I would find edible, but it was just our luck that this is what we encountered at our hotel restaurant. After sitting down and having a couple little interesting appetizers and a glass of champagne our waiter brought us the menus. After spending quite a bit of time discussing if we would even be able to stomach any of the dishes on the menu enough to order I tried as politely as possible to explain to the waiter and then the manager that nothing looking appealing on the menu. Much harder than you’d think with a language barrier involved. In the end they were understanding enough and we paid for what we did eat and drink and went on our way. By this time it was getting close to midnight and everything nearby was closing down. We settled on a little place just across the street called Restaurant Gina which we ended up really enjoying.
After dinner we went back to the hotel to turn in as it had been a long day. Unfortunately the air conditioner in our room did not work and it was quite hot. We were also in a room immediately over the street on the lowest floor and it sounded like we were literally sleeping outside on the sidewalk. Needless to say I didn't get much rest that night, so the following morning I requested a room change, which the hotel graciously honoured.
We left our bags in the room for the staff to change over to our new room once it was ready to go and set out on our first day of Rome adventures. The first stop was the Colosseum where we had another guided tour booked. As luck would have it there was a small breakfast shop adjacent to the tour group meeting spot, so we were able to grab a couple of croissants for breakfast while we were waiting. We met the tour group at the operator headquarters without any issue and walked a short distance to the Colosseum where we got to skip the line and go in a special arena floor entrance.
We entered the Colosseum on the arena floor, half of which is preserved, and the other half is under excavation as they are attempting to restore the catacomb area below the arena floor which was a series of tunnels leading to the trap doors and elevators in ancient times. Unfortunately this area is not open to the public, but perhaps it will be some day! We spent a little time on the floor listening to the guide describe the history and significance of much of the structure before going up to the upper level for more learning and views. Visiting the colosseum got me seriously jacked up about gladiators and I had quite the craving to watch Russel Crowe lay it down.
After our Colosseum tour concluded, we walked around the Roman Forum grounds and Palatine Hill for awhile.
There was so much ground to cover at Palatine Hill and I feel like we barely scratched the surface of everything available there to see but it was an interesting experience nonetheless. After wandering around for awhile we decided it was time for lunch, and found a tasty little place to eat not far from the Forum. Unfortunately by this point in the trip we were over taking pictures of the food, but it was a delicious meal. We had purchased a Rome City Attraction pass for our time there and after lunch we used it to ride the Hop-on Hop-off bus through a couple more points of interest.
We got off the bus at the stop closest to the Spanish Steps which we had planned to be our final sightseeing stop for the day.
The Spanish Steps were… definitely steps! More interesting than the actual physical stairs were the other people also visiting. We saw a couple doing wedding photos while crowds of hundreds of people cheered them on, and families straight up passed out on the steps with their kids after a busy day of vacationing. We walked down, and then back up, enjoying the eclectic mix of individuals enjoying their time in Rome before calling an Uber to head back to our hotel.
We arrived back at the hotel and were escorted up to our new room which was significantly nicer than our original room. It was in better shape, the air conditioning worked, and it was much quieter; all of which made me happy. Coincidently my roommate and coworker was also in Rome at the same time as us in advance of a mediterranean cruise that he was doing with his family and so we didn't want to pass up an opportunity to go for a bite together while we were all in Rome. We planned to meet at the Hard Rock Cafe at about 9pm and laid down for a little nap as we had a couple hours to kill.
After a nice evening out swapping travel stories and enjoying a few drinks we went back to our hotel and went to bed.
The next morning we got up, grabbed a couple sandwiches from a shop nearby the hotel and got in a cab to head over to Vatican City, where we had yet another guided tour booked of the museums and the Sistine Chapel. Since we have been back home I have had several people ask me why we paid for so many guided tours when we could simply walk around the locations on our own. While that's true, I don’t pretend to know nearly enough about Italian history to get much out of just going and looking at some stuff. The extra knowledge and information provided by a guide is, in my opinion, well worth the extra money. Often times when you book a tour you also get to skip some line ups which I would pay for that convenience even without a tour guide being included. We arrived at the Vatican museums pretty early in advance of the tour starting as we didn't really have much idea what to expect here. As we got to skip the line the entrance to the complex was painless and we ended up waiting around longer than we would have liked, but it was the better than potentially being late.
We did a lot of tours on this trip for reasons outlined above, and the only one that I can say whole heartedly was a waste of time and money was the one at the Vatican. Our guide was employed by the Vatican (some guides and groups were "third party") and she honestly spent more time telling us which way to go, and not to get ahead of her or fall behind than giving us information about what we were seeing. The less than great guide aside, the Vatican museums are very small and when you try to jam over 30,000 people per day through the place it gets extremely crowded. It was quite hard to enjoy any of the art or architecture, or really even pay attention to the seldom good information from our tour guide when you are trundling along at a snails pace because you are encased in a tomb of random people.
The tour started with a nice view of the dome at St. Peter's Cathedral, and from there we worked our way very slowly through the halls of the Vatican Museums, and ended with a visit to the Sistine Chapel. We were reminded many times throughout the tour that when we entered the Sistine Chapel we were not allowed to talk, and not allowed to take pictures so of course when we got to the Chapel and went inside every person inside which was at least a thousand, was talking and taking pictures. The security staff was also yelling at people to keep moving and not to stop which added to the noise.
We didn’t spend much time inside the Sistine Chapel, and left the Vatican museums through the gift shops where Laura bought a cute little cross bracelet for her mom. I suggested that she tell her mom the cross fell from the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel right onto her wrist, but she didn’t think that would be as funny as I did.
From the Vatican museums we walked over to Saint Peter's Cathedral which was absolutely breathtaking. In various forms of media I have seen images and video of the square and cathedral but like so much else on this trip, it is on a whole new level of impressive to visit in person.
We wanted to go up to the top of the dome but unfortunately missed the cutoff to buy the tickets so we had to be content with just touring the inside of the Cathedral. I say "just” touring the inside of the Cathedral which doesn't do it much justice as the interior is just as breathtaking and beautiful as the exterior architecture.
After we wrapped up our visit to Vatican City our initial plan was to meet the same Hop-on Hop-off bus from the day before and ride it a few stops closer to the Trevi Fountain which would be one of our final sightseeing stops in Rome. We were greeted by a very large crowd of people at the bus stop arguing with some sort of attendant who may or may not have worked for the bus company. What was certain though was he was selling bus tickets to some of the people waiting, and when the bus finally showed up only those people who had bought their tickets directly from the guy were allowed on. It was super shady and the other guests grew more and more annoyed at the attendant telling them where to line up. It didn’t seem like we would be getting a seat on a bus anytime soon, and as it was after 5pm at this point and the service ended around 6 we opted for an Uber instead. We had read that Piazza Barberini was worth a visit, and as it was in the direction of the Trevi Fountain anyway we chose that as our destination.
A few minutes later we arrived. and discovered there was really nothing special about this square, but it was lined with resturaunts so we stopped for dinner. Like all of the food we ate in Rome, and in all of Italy for that matter, it was wonderful. I had ham and mozzarella tortellini and it was absolutely delicious. One thing I haven’t really touched on in these blogs is how much tiramisu I ate on this trip. I honestly had it at the very least with every dinner, and on some days for lunch as well. It's nothing short of a miracle that I didn't come home at least 50 pounds heavier than I left, and I have been seriously craving it since I have been back in Canada. After our mouth watering desserts were put to rest we started the short walk to the Trevi Fountain.
We didn’t have a coin to throw into the fountain for luck but I think we have an abundance of that between the two of us already. We took our photos, pushed our way through the crowd back to the road, and continued walking toward the Pantheon.
Once a temple to the Roman gods, the Pantheon is an architectural marvel that in current day is a Catholic Church. As long as you don’t visit on a religious holiday or during mass it is generally open to the public as a tourist attraction. Unfortunately for us, it was closed at this point in the evening, and as the following day was Sunday we would not get a chance to see the interior, but it was great to have seen the exterior in person.
Having seen the Pantheon, that wrapped up all of our Rome sightseeing adventures. We had one more day in Rome as we advanced the schedule earlier in the trip, but didn't really have a good idea of what to do to fill our time. It was a beautiful night so we walked from the Pantheon back to our hotel which took us almost an hour but it was a nice trip and we decided that we would go to a nearby zoo the next day as it was June 2 which is Republic Day in Italy and we didn't think much else would be open.
The next morning we slept in as we did not have a real timetable to stick to for the day. We had breakfast at our hotel buffet which consisted mostly of pastries, sweets, and desserts, but I was able to scrounge up some eggs. After eating we gathered our things and set off on a 20 or so minute walk to the zoo. It has become almost a tradition on our travels to visit the zoo so it was really cool that we found time for that in Rome. The other travel tradition we have is mini golf which unfortunately did not get around to in Italy though it would have been a lot of fun!
The zoo wasn't overly large, but it was well maintained and the animals seemed to all have large suitable enclosures which is always nice to see.
After the zoo we walked back to the hotel where we relaxed in the spa area for a couple of hours, took a little nap, and then went out for what would be our last meal in Rome. We found a great looking steak place that wasn’t too far and walked over around 730pm. When we arrived the whole place was completely deserted and we were the only table in our half of the restaurant with customers. As the evening progressed people slowly trickled in and it became busier and busier. Unfortunately the large table situated behind Laura's chair was filled with a ground of elderly-ish people and one gentleman who had apparently made it his mission in life to sit as far from his table as physically possible in order to keep pushing his chair into the back of Laura's. This rude annoyance aside, it was one of the best meals we had on the trip. We got to choose which country our beef hailed from, as well as the specific cut and size that we wanted; I have never been given that much control over my steak before and it came out perfectly cooked and seasoned.
After dinner we cabbed back to the hotel as it was getting late at this point and we had to be up and ready to go at 5am the following morning. We got back to the hotel, packed up as much stuff as we could and went to bed.
Going home! 5:00 came way too early, as it always does, and kicked off one of the longest days of my life. We left the hotel just after 5 for the hour or so drive to Rome's airport, FCO, which isn’t quite in the city, at least not the area that we had been staying. At the check-in for our Alitalia flight from Rome to Paris the check-in agent told me that my carry on bag weighed too much. I had never been told that my carry on weighed too much before, and as I had no room at all in my checked bag I was in a bit of a bind. Not really knowing where I was going to put the stuff I started pulling my laptop and various other things out of my backpack and re-weighing it. I got it down to an acceptable weight, which I believe was about 15 pounds, but also had an armload of stuff. For whatever reason this was acceptable to the agent and I simply walked around the corner to repack the stuff into my backpack never to be bothered about it's weight again.
The flight to Paris was at 8AM and it was about 645 when we got to the gate after security, which left us just enough time to scarf down a little bit of food at one of the nearby deli's. The 2 hour flight to Paris went by pretty quickly but the seats were quite uncomfortable and I had a large gentleman sitting next to me occupying some of my seat so I didn't get the nap I was hoping for. We arrived in Paris about 1030AM and our WestJet flight back to Calgary wasn't until 2:30PM so we had quite a bit of time to kill. Luckily for us we were never short of a line to stand in for something, which is how every sane person loves spending their time. From waiting to collect our bags, to waiting for check-in counters to open, to waiting because the computer broke, to waiting to print our bag tags, to waiting in the broken computer line again, to waiting in the security line - we had plenty to do. I haven’t ever been in an airport where the lounge was on the non-secure side before you go through security, but it is at Paris CDG; at least in the terminal we were in. Not wanting to go back through security and risk being stuck in a longer line later we just sat in the small holding area by our gate waiting for our flight to start boarding.
The rest is really history, we enjoyed another great leg on WestJet's 787 Dreamliner in Business Class, and a quick ride from Calgary back home to Edmonton after that. For perspective we left Rome at 5AM on June 3 which was 9PM at home in Edmonton June 2, and arrived home at about 9PM on June 3, so about a full 24 hours of travelling.
I would go on about how this was the trip of a lifetime, but I have written enough and I'm happy enough to be done with part three finally. Thanks for reading and I'll try to be more punctual with these in the future.