Like many retirees, Mark and I have started to work on our travel bucket list, a job that took us to Italy for 11 days in spring.
The last time we went to Europe was in 2002, when we spent eight days in Ireland. My dad asked why we went there, probably because he doesn’t see any reason to go anywhere other than Italy. His parents migrated from Italy — more specifically Sicily — so that is the country that most members of my family journey to when they travel overseas. Our son went to Sicily and mainland Italy several years ago, and it was high time that we made the pilgrimage ourselves.
The easiest way to plan a trip is to sign up with a tour. A tour has many advantages because all the details are taken care of, but Mark and I like to travel independently — a travel style that has its own advantages and also one that results in many misadventures. Travelers who want to fit as many famous sights as possible into a short amount of time should join a tour. Mark and I like to see some of the less-touristy areas of a country and be free to stop and go whenever and wherever we wish.
Instead of reserving a hotel room near Rome’s historic center, we booked an Airbnb in a residential neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. We enjoyed going to pastry shops and a restaurant where the other patrons were Italian — which meant the waiters didn’t speak very much English, if any, but the food was better than what we got at some of the more touristy restaurants.
Staying outside of historic Rome meant spending a lot of time trying to find the right bus to each destination. We wanted to see the Colosseum and Roman Forum our first day in Rome, and after running to several bus stops, found the right one. Having no guide to tell us when to get off, we decided to alight when we saw ancient ruins from the window. The first sight we encountered was a church with a monumental staircase leading up to its doors. A bride was ascending the 124 steps in the rain, as four attendants held her voluminous train and her father held an umbrella over her head. We followed the bridal party up the stairs and were allowed to enter through a side door to watch the wedding in what turned out to be the grand and glorious Basilica of St. Mary of the Altar of Heaven.
The wedding was just the first of several surprises we would encounter in Rome because we traveled without a guide. Not knowing where we were going meant that we had to approach strangers, asking, “Parla inglese?” We got to meet some friendly and generous people in the process of procuring directions. On our second day in Rome, a woman named Rosy took us from one bus to another to put us on the right one to the Borghese Gallery. The next day, we saw Rosy working at a gift shop in the Vatican Museums and greeted one another like old friends.
After three days in Rome, we took a bus, train, ferry and then another bus to get to Praiano, a little village on the Amalfi Coast. If we were with a tour group, we would have stayed in a more popular tourist destination such as Positano or Sorrento, and we would have visited Pompeii. Instead, we spent two days just wandering around Praiano, up and down the hundreds of stairs and through the narrow alleyways that opened up to gorgeous views of the Tyrrhenian Sea. We said arrividerci to Praiano after two days, taking the bus back over the treacherous winding road to Amalfi, where we spent the day relaxing, not realizing that we were about to embark on the most nerve-wracking of our Italian adventures.
In planning our voyage from the mainland to Sicily, I thought it would be easy to take a ferry from Amalfi to Salerno, where we would get the all-night ferry to Catania, Sicily. As it turned out, the ferry that took us to Salerno did not dock at the same port where the huge cargo ferry was loading tractor-trailers and cars as well as foot passengers like ourselves. We arrived in Salerno one hour before we were supposed to board the ferry to Sicily, and it took us that whole hour to walk, and then run, to make it on time.
In Sicily, we rented a car and drove to the mountaintop village of Taormina, where we stayed for three nights. We enjoyed some aimless wandering around this medieval town with its magnificent views, and drove into the countryside to see some small villages and farms. I’m sure we missed a lot of sights that a tour guide would have shown us, but now that we are home, we realize that our best memories of Italy are the places we saw when we had no particular destination in mind.
If you’d like to read more about our wanderings, you can find them on my blog: https://surprisedbyitaly.blogspot.com.
Emily VanLaeys lives in Oneonta. Contact her by email at email@example.com.