Discover Northern Italy: 5 Highlights

Oh Northern Italy. The sweet and intoxicating scent of flowers in the warm amiable evening. The mixture of sun oil and salt on my skin. And that particular glow that results from vacation freedom, utter happiness and a bit of glowing sweat as the thermometer reaches 30 degrees Celsius. Pure love.

We spent almost two weeks in June road tripping in Northern Italy. We began our trip with a steady and faithful Fiat Punto* in Milan and headed toward La Spezia and the colourful Cinque Terre with a lunch / day stroll / photo stop in Pavia. Our tour also included Porto Venere, Florence, Modena, Bologna, Lago d’Iseo, Pilzone, the Franciacorta wine region and then lastly, Milan.

*If the friendly customer service lady promises you an upgrade to your rental car it can be a good idea to check that you are on the same page when it comes to the meaning of that term. But anyhow, the journey goes on.

I have a million and three tips and recommendations and I’ll dive in to the beautiful cities and villages, the winery and restaurant recommendations and unforgettable do’s in upcoming posts but now I thought I’d share some selected highlights. So, let’s start!

The best lunch view

The view from the restaurant Al Castello in the village of Vernazza in Cinque Terre. You can enjoy a fresh from the sea and al dente Pasta Vongole as a primi and listen to the waves hit against the vertical rock wall down below. The view is spectacular, the seafood is savoury, but the service could afford a little improvement as the elderly waiter was quite grumpy.

The title of the most beautiful view of our entire trip goes to the rooftop vista from the Duomo in Milan. Or the magnificent view from the Castello Doria in the town of Porto Venere. Or the view of the village of Manarola as the sun sets.

The hottest thing

By far and without a doubt our bike tour in the Franciacorta region, from Pilzone to the Bellavista winery and back, a good 30 kilometres in total in the equivalent amount of degrees.

As we hit the town of Iseo all I wanted to do was run straight into the lake. The bike tour was great: biking is a good way to explore the wine region and the many wine roads. There are several prestigious wineries in the area. It’s a good idea to book a visit in advance either by contacting the wineries directly via email or booking a tour from the Iseo tourist office. And for the bike excursion remember to take with you your phone for navigating, a hat for the sun and a bottle or two of water. We got the bikes for the day from our accommodation, which brings me to my next point:

The best accommodation

The award goes to [drum roll] Antica Casa Fenaroli in Pilzone (Via San Pietro, Iseo). Upon our arrival to this mansion house the hosts greeted us with bubbly prosecco, strong espressos and sweet delicacies prepared by the mother of the direttore. Quite a welcome! The room, a suite apartment as it turned out, was cozy, spacey and very well equipped. And the breakfast served to our room was plentiful and tasty. As a cherry on top we got to borrow two bikes for an entire day for visiting the wineries. I would make a critical remark if I had one but nope.

The learning experience

There is a precious wine area, the Franciacorta wine region, South of the Lake Iseo in the Province of Brescia. That I knew. The sparkling wines are made by the metodo classico (the same method as with champagne). We visited two wineries, Ferghettina and Bellavista and learned quite a bit. Stay tuned!

The gem

This is my favourite. We got to see an opera at the La Scala! Must admit, when it comes to opera I thought that I wasn’t quite in touch with my inner Niles Crane, but this program ended up being one of the top experiences of the whole trip. Getting the affordable tickets for the performance of the evening requires that you make space in your day’s schedule and go the Evening Box Office by Via Filodrammatici three times on that day: first to get your name on the list at 1 o’clock pm (the first 140 get in), then at 5 pm to get your voucher and thirdly at 5:30 pm to exchange the voucher for the actual ticket. The tickets are balcony tickets: we had our seats on the sixth floor and by standing and holding on to the metallic rail we saw rather well to the stage. The piece that night was La Bohème. The powerful singing in Italian, the beautiful interior, the mirrors and crystal chandeliers in the foyer and a glass of sparkling Bellavista: a splendid night.

A Day in Rome

Oh Rome, missed your summery sweetness in the snow blizzards (!) of April in Helsinki. Oh well, let’s get rolling. I haven’t really done these Day 1, Day 2 type of itinerary posts, but as our Saturday in Rome was so fruitful, I thought I’d do one now.

Our plan was to spend the day exploring the Vatican City and then enjoy the vibes of Trastevere in the night time. And that we did. After starting the day with a sweaty workout at the gym (one accommodation recommendation with a good gym is the Residence Palazzo al Velabro) we headed towards the fresh-produce market Campo de ‘Fiori to sense the market bustle and to see what was seasonal and delicious at the time. We took a small detour across the Ponte Fabricio to see the Isola Tiberina. The selection at the market included colourful vegetables, flowers, Italian cheeses, an assortment of pasta, limoncello in glass bottles shaped in the form of Italy and kitchen accessories.

After the Roman market experience it was time for some lunch. We were certain that we’d find an alluring Osteria with tasty food in one of the smaller side streets. And very soon we did. The La Fiaschetta (Via Dei Cappellari 64) is small, easy-going and authentic Italian restaurant with excellent food. Try the cacio e pepe (pasta with cheese and pepper) and the carbonara and finish your meal with a strong espresso. At La Fiaschetta they also have an extensive selection of Italian wines. Our views met the ranking of TripAdvisor: the restaurant holds the place 149 of the almost 10 000 restaurants in Rome.

As a side note, if you are in the mood / serious need of some dessert in the vicinity of Piazza Navona, you have to head to the Gelateria del Teatro (Via dei Coronari 65). You really must. I kid you not it’s the best artisan gelato I’ve ever had. Tasting the mango flavour was like biting a ripe and juicy mango. All their ice creams are prepared on site: through a big glass windows you can see the gelato chefs (might they take interns?) at work. Excellent flavours are also the pistachio and the mixture of rosemary and honey. Be prepared to queue for a while. But, it’s definitely worth the wait.

The next destination: the Vatican – the empire of the Pope and smallest state in the world. The Vatican Museums have more artworks and magnificent treasures than many small countries. Among the most impressive highlights are the Sistine Chapel with the amazing ceiling frescoes painted by Michelangelo, the Sala degli Animali with its various sculpted animals, the colossal bronze statue of Hercules in the Round Room, the mosaic floors and the Egyptian museum with its mummies, skilfully painted sarcophagi and the decorated urns for different intestines.

As a word of warning, right around the penultimate corner before the museum entrance there were these men wearing suits and some official Vatican guided tour badge who really tried to bamboozle the visitors: they claimed that choosing the other line meant queuing for around four hours whereas the faster (and a lot costlier) lane would get us to the museum entrance in only 15 minutes. Well, we decided to pass their offer, took the alleged slower line and reached the entrance in about 20 minutes. Some devious people. The full entry ticket cost 16 euros per person and included the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel. Last, we visited the St. Peter’s Basilica.

By the way, if you want to send a special greeting by mail, the Vatican City has its own postal service and postage stamps.

After the hours spent in awe, you might be hungry. If you are in the mood for what some call the best pizza in Rome, head toward the Pizzarium Bonzi (at Via della Meloria 43). They serve scissor-cut slices topped with various yummy toppings. You can enjoy your slice by the high wooden tables right outside. Be prepared for a little wait.

Our Saturday evening we spent strolling the medieval alleys of Trastevere, a charming and atmospheric neighbourhood by the Tiber. There is no shortage of alluring trattorias. Our choice was the ristorante Le Mani in Pasta (Via Dei Genovesi 37). It turned out to be a combination of delicious food and a speedy and eventful atmosphere. Try the artichoke salad as antipasti and the pasta with seafood for two. They also had some excellent bubbly from the Franciacorta wine region. So now we know where to head next.

A great day.

Rome and La Dolce Vita

Rome, the beautiful eternal city. Must admit, I felt slight travel stress when I thought that I should fit over 2000 years of the history of civilization in one long weekend. And soon I came to realize that I – obviously – couldn’t. And here is my first Rome tip: choose a few sights and places of interest, reserve time for wandering the side streets and discovering authentic trattorias and gateways with fountains and orange tree gardens and leave the rest until the next time.

Rome in late March was warm. It was around 23 degrees Celsius during the two sunny days. The last day of our visit was also the time of the Maratona di Roma: around one o’clock in the afternoon we saw a stream of tired runners wrapped in their silver space blankets heading home from the finishing area near the Colosseum. The end of March is an excellent time to visit the city. The flowers and vines are blooming, the warmth and the sunrays caress the visitor and the tourist season with its costlier prices is still not fully on (unless Easter is dated on that particular weekend). The chestnut vendors and street musicians are out by the piazzas and the queues to the most popular gelaterias stretch out to the streets. One thing that surprised me was the number of heavily armed soldiers and police officers all around the city, at metro stations, by the squares and in front of all the official buildings. It is both reassuring and slightly alarming at the same time.

In this post I’ll share a few favourites. A post about Roman cuisine and the adventures of one day are coming up a bit later!

The Colosseum. A stage of raw history and a spectacular must. On my first visit to Rome we spent the day there, marvelling at the arches of the exterior, the arena, the hypogeum and the thrilling size and scale of it all. This time we decided to focus on the other sights. No other monument has impressed me as much as the Colosseo. I read somewhere that the arena could also be flooded for water battles: can you imagine that? It must have taken ages to create a sea battle setting and where did they get enough water for that? So, my recommendation is that watch the Gladiator one more time and go (preferably book you tickets online in advance to avoid the lines).

Circo Massimo. Have you biked or ran along the runaway at the Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, the one that has ceased operating? In Circo Massimo you can get a similar experience by galloping around the grass field. This is where the epic chariot races (remember Ben Hur) took place in Ancient Rome.

Fresh-produce markets. I love markets and market life: they are great for picking something fresh and seasonal as a to-go lunch. We visited the Campo de’ Fiori on Saturday around one o’clock pm and it was still busy and lively at that time. The selection includes for example cheeses, fruits, vegetables, cut flowers and moka pots. Globe artichokes (the one resembling a big green pinecone) were one local ingredient which we spotted on the menu in the trattorias as well. March is the prime season for the carciofo alla giudia. Another well-known market, Mercato di Circo Massimo, is closed for now, just to let you know.

Roman Cuisine. I could write extensively and with passion about this. One primo piatto I really enjoyed was salad with bresaola, arugula and parmesan, insalata di bresaola con rucola e parmigiano. Just add a little olive oil. Pure deliciousness in the colours of Italy. Delicious were also the pasta cacio e pepe, carbonara and the tiramisu.

Explore and walk around the Centro Storico. The historic centre is thick on skilful sculptures and magnificent artworks. For example the church Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi houses three of Caravaggio’s stunning paintings. If all of a sudden the lights go out as you are admiring the canvases, you must insert a coin in the light box.

And then there of course is the Pantheon. The unique and striking Pantheon. The rays of light come inside the monument from the oculus in the centre of the dome. And as sunlight gets in so does the rain. The rain water drains away from the small holes in the marble floor.

More tips in my next post. Grazie mille, Roma!