Last month, our families came to visit. First my husband’s family and then my own. In total, we had family here for around a month, although I was only able to take around 2.5 weeks off. It was great to see everyone, and to get the chance to travel around Italy a little bit. In total, we visited Bologna, Venice, Bolzano, Castel Beseno, Florence, Rome, Pompeii, and Sicily.
I don’t have many tips for these places that you can’t find elsewhere, so I’ll compile the few I have here at the top since the rest of the post is pretty long.
- Rome: 3 days is enough, official taxis are white and they are cheap and efficient; deep fried artichokes are amazing (“carciofio alla giudia”)
- The Vatican: during tours at the Vatican, you can drop off your headset and keep going on your own if you want; spend a bit of extra time in the map room, because there’s a lot going on here; Garage Vespasiano can even take giant cars (but bringing a car to Rome is pretty pointless)
- Pompeii: use the Circumvesuviana train to get there from Napoli (follow signs from the central station to their platforms), but watch the stop names outside the train to make sure to get off at “Pompei Scavi”, because the map might be missing stops on it; check out Villa dei Misteri (NW corner) for some really cool frescos
- Sicily: spend a week here; renting a car at the airport makes sense to travel around the island; driving on highways feels similar to driving in LA (but I don’t know about driving in Palermo; that might be hard); don’t rent a big car or it won’t fit on small roads; keep in mind that Google maps will send you on tiny cobblestone streets that you aren’t supposed to drive on because they are limited to residents, so pay good attention to street signs
- Venice: 1 day is enough to walk around the center and then take a ferry (“vaporetto”) back to the train station; there is parking in one area on the island but there’s not much point in bringing a car
- Bolzano: buy speck (cured pork), take the cable car (10 euro there and back) to Soprabolzano and check out some of the views and hikes there
- Trentino area: check out Castel Beseno, which is the largest fortification in the area and the views are amazing; there is 2 hour break between 10 and 12 in trains in the mornings, so plan around that for travel
- Florence: the line for Uffizi can take an hour or more, so plan accordingly; eat amazing lunch sandwiches at “I’ Girone De’ Ghotti” on the way there from the cathedral
Our two families are similar in some ways, but different in others. They bring with them different stresses. My husband’s family likes plans, and I find it difficult to improvise or to explore, lest we go off the rails. My family, on the other hand, fails to make any plans, and as a result, everything is in utter chaos most of the time, making it difficult to achieve goals. Both families have strong opinions. Also, both families have members temporarily dealing with some health/walking difficulties so we move pretty slowly.
However, I feel that this year, things went pretty well overall. There were no big arguments and we got to do almost everything we set out to do together. The biggest stresses came from factors outside our control, that is, less from our interpersonal relations, and more from just stressful situations that occurred, and in the end we handled all of them.
I would very much like to pretend that the successes partly came from my experiences in Italy over the last year. I wish I could say that I have somehow become a more open and laid back person, capable of handling complex situations in a calm manner. I remember in the past once being playfully called “small and intense” (but in every joke there is a kernel of truth). It would be nice to think that over the last year I have become more relaxed, but without losing whatever positive aspects “intenseness” entails (such as perhaps focus or emotive capacity). But most of the successes of the vacation can more likely be attributed to my husband’s empathy and forethought than any of my own abilities, or else just to dumb luck with things working out as they should.
The most tense moment was when we lost someone. We were on the Circumvesuviana train from Napoli to Pompeii, and although this train is the simplest way to get to Pompeii, it is really shitty. It’s old and rattly and hot, and it makes many stops along the way. Before heading out, I got a timetable and map of the stops from their info center. As our stop was nearing, we moved to the front of the train. On the map, I saw that the next stop should be “Pompei Scavi (Pompeii excavations)” and told people to prepare themselves.
My husband’s brother was at the front as the doors opened and his parents were behind me (my husband was sick that day so he wasn’t with us). The doors opened and my husband’s brother hopped out. As quickly as they opened, they closed! I swear, it was something like 3 seconds that they were open, maximum. I tried to hold them open, but it was the old sort of train where the doors don’t sense people (it was kind of dangerous, to be honest). Just in that moment we realized this was not Pompei Scavi, but some other stop, although the map had not shown another stop in between. The train left, with my husband’s brother stuck on the platform. He didn’t have his phone since it wasn’t working in Italy, and he doesn’t speak a word of Italian. As the train pulled away, I made a motion for him to wait through the train door window, which I felt he understood.
We got to the next stop and went into full gear. I ran to buy a ticket for the next train back, and my husband’s parents got the station to call back to the previous stop to tell them what happened. Unfortunately, the station said they didn’t see him on the platform. Everyone was freaking out, but all things considered, I felt pretty calm. I felt that he had understood to wait (where could he go, after all?), and that the next steps were clear to me. I only had some restless anxiousness as I waited for the next train. Fortunately, it came in just 10 minutes, and the stop was only another 5 minutes away. All told it probably took around 25 or 30 minutes to get back. As I exited the train, however, I realized the platform was completely empty. No brother-in-law. No one at all, really. I descended the stairs, and saw only the exit doors.
Somehow, in this moment, it all caught up with me, and I felt that wave of panic starting to rise. I forced myself to calm down, and decided to thoroughly search the platforms above before trying to head past the exit doors (which I would be unable to re-enter without spending a ticket). I finally returned downstairs and went around the corner towards the exit doors– and there he was, sitting at the cafe bar. Of course, he had known the best course of action was to stay put. The station operators had found him after we called ahead (without being able to inform us), and had gotten him some coffee and water to calm his nerves while he waited. Crisis averted.
We spent the rest of the day in Pompeii and I returned later once again with my family. I can really recommend spending a day there, especially if the weather is nice, because it’s just incredible to see how people lived back then (not so differently from us in fact), how vivid their frescos and other art was, and how much of the city has survived until now.
Other than the time we lost my husband’s brother, there were no major incidents. Of course everyone traded sicknesses as usual, we were late to many places, and had to figure out how to get around and where to eat, but these were normal every day stressors. Our families were together for only one of the days, and this was the day we decided to go to the Vatican. We had been too late to buy individual tickets, so we ended up having to get tickets in part of a tour. This tour was awful. The Vatican was super crowded and the tour lady raced through the coolest parts of it, so we kept losing people in the crowds. We should have just returned our radios to the lady after we got past the doors at the start, and walked through the rest of the museum on our own instead, because it would have been way less stressful.
In fact, we spent too much time in Rome, since our family trips only overlapped over one day there, and both families wanted to see everything. Unless you travel there specifically for the many different museums, it’s really just a big city like most other big cities, which is to say, 3 full days (not counting travel days) are enough to see the main sights. In terms of traveling around Rome, it’s true that we could have likely taken public transport almost everywhere, but being with people who had some trouble moving around, it made better sense to take taxis, especially since they were actually surprisingly cheap and incredibly efficient. It probably cost us an average of 5 euro per person per ride.
My parents had decided to rent a car since they were staying at an AirBnB some ways outside of Rome, but the only car they could find to fit everyone was a massive behemoth, half the size of a bus. This sequence of decisions all made little sense. The behemoth could hardly be driven in Rome and we would spend at least 30 minutes just searching for parking. Eventually, we found the one parking garage (Garage Vespasiano) that the behemoth could fit into, but sometimes that garage was full so we’d have to keep searching. In the end, after we parked, we still had to take taxis everywhere.
After Rome and Pompeii, we continued on to Sicily. We flew from Rome to Palermo Airport with Rynair, which was another mistake. The plane was around 3 hours late, and that caused us to actually come later than if we had driven there. In fact, we ended up having to rent cars at Palermo Airport anyways, since once again, my family chose to live somewhere without a train connection. This time, we rented two smaller cars including one manual transmission SUV and an Alfa Romeo, the only automatic they had at the time. This turned out to be a good idea because we were able to get around pretty quickly this way, and to see many beautiful sights along the way.
Having two cars also gave us the ability to split up which also helped keep stress levels low. Driving on the autostrada (highway type road) wasn’t a lot worse than driving on Los Angeles freeways, but driving around small streets was harder even with the normal sized Alfa Romeo sedan. I would recommend renting as small a car as possible (a two door hatchback maybe), and I just wouldn’t bother to rent anything bigger than a small SUV. Also, when you are driving around, if you are using Google maps, keep in mind that it will send you on tiny cobblestone streets that are actually illegal to drive on unless you are a resident there. So you have to pay close attention to the signs yourself, and don’t fully trust Google maps.
We only spent a few days in Sicily, and it wasn’t enough at all. A week, at least, would have been much better. We didn’t even visit Palermo, because we were staying in the countryside. Also it was a bit rainy and some of us were trading sicknesses around this time, so we really saw very little. We spent one day wandering around the lovely town of Cefalù, where we saw a centuries old laundry, and another day at Agrigento, which took us a couple hours through some lovely mountains to get to.
After Sicily, we returned to the North of Italy, and visited Venice, Florence, and Bolzano. Once again, my parents rented a car and we had to drive and park it everywhere. It did come in handy since it gave us the ability to leave when we wanted, so we didn’t have to conform to train schedules (something my family is very bad at doing), but we still had to find a place to park before taking public transport around the cities.
In Venice, there is parking in only one place on the island but there are a few different garages there with plenty of space in them. In Florence and Bolzano there is parking near the train stations. So yes, it is possible to take cars to these cities, it’s just a bit of a hassle, and parking is around 20-30 euro for a full day. The cost of tolls also adds up, being between 5-15 euro one way.
Anyways, we had a nice time with both of our families, but we did get pretty tired out. After all the family was gone, my husband and I just ordered pizza and slept for two days straight.