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Thanks to my good friends James and Shane for a bit of (strangely necessary) nudging, I joined James, his wife Katherine, my sister Emily, and my roommate Shane for a trip to Italy in April of 2015. This trip was largely made possible due to an excellent price on plane tickets from New York City to Milan, Italy, which were on sale from both Emirates and Alitalia (Italy's national airline) for $400 round-trip per person. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised just how relatively affordable traveling to Italy was, with train tickets being two-for-one on Saturdays, meals frequently being astonishingly inexpensive, AirBnB apartments providing nice accommodations for far less than hotel pricing, and a strong dollar making exchange rates with the euro favorable. Of course, this cost analysis completely ignores the main point of venturing to Italy: the incredible art and structures of the Old World, and experiencing a foreign culture with its own traditions and social etiquette. But, I would like to point out that traveling to Europe, particularly if you watch online sales for national airlines, is more affordable than many might assume.
Milan: Don't Forget to Wear a Suit
Arriving in Malpensa just outside Milan after flying over the breathtaking Alps, we took a forty minute train ride toward our rented apartment not too distant from the Duomo in central Milan. Fortunately for us, we had picked an apartment in a good location, with many of Milan's biggest attractions, such as the Milan Duomo, in easy walking distance. The duomos in Italian cities are gigantic churches often found in the city center, and you can't miss them - they're so ornately designed. We went inside the duomos of both Milan and Florence, with the former possessing some of the most intricately designed architecture I have ever seen. The Duomo of Milan is dedicated to Saint Mary, and is apparently the fifth largest church in the world. It's not hard to imagine it being so, as it's massive spires and behemoth vaulted ceilings and pillars were certainly breathtaking. However, I can't help but wonder to myself if Milan's duomo is just the Italian version of an American multimillion-dollar megachurch. It certainly isn't subtle, though I guess Italians are rarely subtle in their art and lives.
Nearly every man in Milan wears a suit - Barney Stinson would definitely feel at home here. It's difficult to live up to the handsome, perfectly manicured aesthetic of the Milan man, so I didn't really try. It was also fairly warm and a bit humid there, making a suit (at least to me) an impracticality considering the significant amount of walking we did while there. Fortunately, I had decent enough clothes to enjoy several nice restaurants there, but expect them to require a reservation even on a Thursday evening. We still had to wait at least 40 minutes after our reservation to get a table at one busy restaurant. Our poor waiter looked quite worn out, lamenting that a coworker did not show for his shift that evening. My sister made perhaps the biggest faux pas of the trip by pointing out that at least he probably was making more money from tips. Please note that waiters in Italy and most European countries get paid a living wage - tipping is not necessary or expected. The look he gave her was one of open sadness and regret. I think a trombone wah-wahed in the background.
Another thing I learned about Italians is that they love dogs. Parco Sempione is a nearby park that has a sizable dog park with many very cute purebred dogs running around, often without a leash. Besides the dog park, Parco Sempione also showcased numerous enthusiastic young Italian couples, all of whom seemed to have found the park's benches an irresistible place to make out in the late afternoon. Public displays of affection are not unusual in Italy, as we later encountered a young couple making out quite earnest on the train to Venice. Walking past the many amorous couples, Shane and I also viewed Sforza Castle, a 15th century castle at one end of the park. This large citadel is a good place to sit, rest, and enjoy the view as long as you can avoid the scam artists stationed nearby the castle's entrances. If a castle and a dog park aren't enough entertainment, Parco Sempione also features the Porta Sempione city gate and arch, which dates back to the Napoleon era.
Milan also features a lovely Chinatown district, which was quite conveniently located minutes away from our apartment. On Sunday, when nearly every Italian-owned restaurant or shop was closed, Chinatown was still bustling with people and had plenty of places to eat. Now, I might be breaking some kind of sacrilege when I say this, but I have to be quite honest: I think the Chinese food we had in Chinatown might have been the best meal of the trip. We had some excellent food elsewhere, but the spicy crab, duck with orange, and spicy pork sausage with rice noodles were just some of the delicious plates we sampled there. It didn't hurt that after 10+ plates of food and several drinks shared between the five of us, our bill totaled roughly 65 euros.
We were also fortunate enough to be in Milan while a traveling exhibition to Leonardo da Vinci was in town. Witnessing his pencil drawings, including the famous Vitruvian Man, was only slightly spoiled by a thrifty selection of inventions and contraptions towards the end of the exhibit. It's easy to almost forget visiting this exhibition compared to the grandeur and extensive artwork of the Uffizi later on, but this museum was certainly an impressive appetizer for our hunger for Italian art.
While Milan was our home base for the trip and we could have done plenty more exploring in this city, we couldn't resist utilizing Italy's excellent train system (well, minus the sub-par websites and ticket purchasing systems) to visit two more tourist-friendly Italian cities: Venice and Florence.
Venice: A Wonderful Day Trip
A two-and-a-half hour train ride to Venice brought us to one of the most recognizable cities in the world. The "City of the Canals" is quite breathtaking, with maze-like side streets often abruptly ending at a canal entry. Shops line every corner and alley, particularly along the tourist-filled roads leading to the city's center. I was quite excited to visit Venice, and, while it did not exactly disappoint, I will say that the city is best kept as a day trip. Unlike the modern metropolis that is Milan and the friendly capital of Tuscany Florence, Venice felt very much like a tourist park in areas. Crowds of visiting Europeans, Asians, and Americans made viewing some of Venice's spectacular sights a cramped affair. However, I do get the feeling a second, less brisk trip to Venice might offer a bit more depth. For one, I might have liked to see the Modern Art Museum in Venice, which might have been a good counterpart to the more religious and classical art pieces in the Uffizi in Florence. There's also a Guggenheim museum in Venice, which I didn't even know about until just now.
What we did do in Venice is cruise through street after street, many offering the delicious and tasty pastries that Italians consume for breakfast along with their trademark espressos and cappuccinos. Gelaterias producing the signature Italian ice cream are also stationed seductively along busy intersections - though at least in Venice you don't have to watch out for packs of small Italian cars careening through corners and over cobblestone streets that you'd assume were for pedestrians only. Yes, Venice is a pedestrian only city, which makes sense as the paths are rarely wide enough for all but the smallest of vehicles. The Piazza San Marco is definitely worth a visit, with the breathtaking St. Mark's Basilica and the massive Campanile bell tower accompanying it as highlights. It's easy to see why Venice is such a popular spot in movies, as its architecture is beautiful, and the view from the Grand Canal is one I will not soon forget.
We did happen to be visiting Venice on St. Mark's Day, a holiday whose tradition dictates that men bring their lover a single rose. While we did see several rose vendors throughout the city and men carrying a rose purposefully through the crowds towards their love, Venice didn't beat us over the head with the holiday contrary to department stores in American on Valentine's Day.
After walking a trip high of 18 miles in Venice, we returned by train to Milan, tired and ready for much needed rest.
Florence: The Highlight of the Vacation
For the final two full days of the vacation, we traveled to the capital of Tuscany, Florence. Florence is, I think, what many people will expect to see when visiting northern Italy. Even when compared to Venice's canals, Florence has a certain romantic aura about it. Like Milan, it's a destination for fashion aficionados, with Gucci, Prada, and other high end stores everywhere. Even I succumbed to the romance of this city, purchasing a brown leather jacket in Florence's coveted leather market. Wearing an Italian leather jacket while seated on our apartment's window overlooking a busy side street, a violinist began to play soothingly. You can't really top that, and I have no reservations in declaring it my favorite city of the three we visited.
People in Florence were a bit friendlier to us Americans than those in Venice and Milan. Restaurant workers were more pleasant and spoke more English, and truly catered to us ignorant tourists. I even appreciated the Duomo of Florence more than the one in Milan. While Milan's duomo was intricate beyond belief, the duomo of Florence was relatively subdued in comparison. However, the dome of this classic cathedral has perhaps my favorite work of art I saw in Italy, which is the fresco known as the Last Judgment by Vasari and Zuccari. The ceiling artwork is, at points, quite dark and disturbing - complete with demons devouring the bodies of sinners and those damned eternally to Hell at the end of the world. Walking up the numerous narrow steps to the top of the dome one morning also provided us with spectacular views of Florence, complete with the iconic rolling Tuscan hills and cypress trees.
My second favorite dining experience in Italy was in Florence, as I had done my research and found one of the best places in the city to get the world famous steak florentine dish: Perseus. I can wholeheartedly recommend this restaurant to anyone who likes a good rare steak as I do. However, it was a bit of a walk to get there from our apartment in the fashion district, and a decent amount of rainfall meant that I was fairly wet by the time we arrived. I was definitely lucky that I had worn my newly purchased Italian leather jacket. Still, the service was very pleasant and the prospect of consuming a pound of bloody, rare meat kept me in good spirits. Fresh vegetables are served at every table, which I found to be excellent, and the zuccinni flowers and beans were also tasty. Nothing beats a thick steak though, which they serve family style, that is, sliced into sizable hunks table-side. My sister even broke decent manners again and gnawed on the nearly bare bone. Two-and-a-half pounds of steak later and after polishing off a jug of wine, this meal still capped out at about 140 euros, another great value.
A majority of the time on our final day in Florence was spent at the Uffizi, a world-renowned art museum of classical Italian paintings. The Uffizi is so famous and adorned with classic paintings like The Birth of Venus that the museum's numerous sculptures are not even named or, in general, accompanied by further information. Because our visit to the Uffizi was towards the end of our trip, my energy levels were starting to slump, and the long walks were taking a toll. Therefore, it was a bit difficult for me to process or appreciate the dozens of paintings of baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary, which had me thinking about Talladega Nights: the Ballad of Ricky Bobby more than is probably appropriate. They sure do love baby Jesus there. Still, it was awe-inspiring to see iconic works like Michelangelo's painting of Doni Tondo, otherwise known as The Holy Family. After spending over three-and-a-half hours at the Uffizi, I concluded I was much more at home and fond of modern art and natural history museums, but it's still an unforgettable place and a must-see when in Florence.
Bit by the Travel Bug
It has definitely become a priority of mine in my twenties to travel more frequently and to go outside my comfort zone here in Arizona. Visiting Italy for a week has probably been the most adventurous and grandiose vacation yet. We spent a week there but I feel like we could have spent a month or more and not seen close to everything. When you tell people that you're going to Italy or have gone, they immediately ask, "Did you see Rome?" I haven't seen Rome, despite wanting to. I'm told a trip to Rome alone requires three to four days or more. It would also have been very pleasant to see the Mediterranean parts of Italy - Sicily, in particular, is a place I'd like to visit. After flying over the nearby Alps, it's anguishing to know that we were so close to Lake Como and Switzerland but didn't get a chance to visit them, though James and Katherine did manage to take a trip to Lake Como after my sister, my roommate and I left.
But really, who am I kidding? After years of watching Anthony Bourdain's adventures on CNN and The Travel Channel, there are very few places in Europe that I wouldn't be excited to visit. Who doesn't want to grab a pint in London or dine on tapas in Spain? Having lived in Arizona for the entirety of my life, it's always nice to go to a place that isn't just varying shades of brown. But Italy is more than that - it's beautiful people, fast cars and motorcycles, romantic views of canals and narrow streets, rivers, mountains, cypress trees, graffiti (there was plenty of it, even in the cathedrals), designer clothes, purebred dogs, espressos, and, for me, a monument to the friendships I have kept along the way. Seeing all of these famous sights was a privilege, but seeing them with friends and my sister (who was surprisingly well behaved overall - Emily.) was special. And now, at the end of this tremendously long blog post that could probably be even longer, I guess I should end with one of the few Italian words I know - Ciao.