My First Trip to Europe
07.12.2015 - 19.12.2015 10 °C
Europe has always been one of the places that I wanted to go since I started work. Unfortunate due to lack of money, followed by lack of time and then lack of interest from friends, I had been postponing this trip year after year. That was until one fine day when of my old classmates sent me a message asking if I was interested to go to Italy and Switzerland. Even though Italy was not my first choice and I would also prefer to cover Germany as part of this trip, I simply could not turn down this proposal! But in the end due to work commitments (can’t take so many days leave) and the freezing cold, I chose to skip Switzerland and settled for a 12-day coverage of Italy.
For this trip, we chose to go by the following route.
Milan=> Venice=> Pisa=> Cinque Terra=> Florence=> Rome=> Pompeii=> Milan
After months of planning and painfully waiting for time to tick by, the day finally came! We took an SQ direct flight and after 13-hours of half-sleep, eating and movie marathon, we finally reached Milan. Our first stop for the trip was Venice. From Milan Central train Station, it took us about 2hrs 30 min by train to reach Venice St Lucia station. Venice really lived up to its name as a beautiful city with its own unique charm that other water cities that have tried to emulate its concept simply cannot replicate. The first sight that greeted us was crowds of tourists enjoying the surroundings. It is a walking city totally devoid of cars so the only way to travel around is either by foot or by boat. However, we needed to luger our baggage around while looking for our hotel (a common occurrence amongst tourists in Venice as I soon found out) and it took us a good 30 minutes of getting lost, asking around, backtracking and feeling our way around while dragging our luggage around before we found it. But once settled down and freshened up, we finally had time to slowly immerse ourselves into this beautiful city.
Venice is built around an island connected by footpaths and waterway. So the best way to immerse yourself into the city is to spend one full day there and then taking slow and leisurely walks through town. As mentioned earlier, the city itself does not have cars so there is no need to watch your back for traffic. Everybody moved at a slow pace while enjoying the surroundings and there were even many walking their dogs. But the footpaths are a little bit uneven so it is quite a challenge not to mention tiring if you need to drag your luggage across town.
After a good night’s rest, we were blessed with cool weather in our full day in Venice. We decided to take a slow leisurely walk through town instead of the water bus to bask in the sights of this city. Along the way we passed many small shops selling food and souvenirs. Along the way we also covered the Rialto Bridge, one of the features of Venice. But our main objective was to cover St Mark’s Square (inclusive St Marco Basilica & St Mark’s Bell Tower), the largest square in the city. This was a beauty in itself. What I like about it was the laid-back activities in the square with people taking pictures, strolling around and enjoying their cuppa around the many coffee houses. Adding to its charm are the flock of pigeons flying around in which many tourists were more than happy to mingle with while getting that special photo. We then took a slow broadwalk alongside the canal and turned back halfway for lunch.
With time to spare we decided to cover Doge’s Palace. This was another place worth visiting despite the steep admission price. Doge’s Palace was where the city’s public offices, courtrooms, prisons, the Doge’s apartments, stables, armouries, and other facilities were located and now also serves as a museum. I was struck by the beauty of various murals and frescos on the walls and ceiling of the building and could only stare in amazement, with some even as big and as three stories high. It must have taken a lot of man-hours to complete the various master pieces. I had no regrets coming in and would recommend it as part of the trip
The last activity of the day was to take a gondola ride (cost: Euro 80 for a 30-min ride with maximum of 6 passengers per gondola) through the canal to enjoy the rustic sight of the city by waterway. Unfortunately the sky began to turn dark by the time we boarded the gondola but still the experience was unique. This was also where I realised residents of this town had to literally take the boat to reach their door steps! The journey took us back to Rialto Bridge where we reluctantly disembarked and made our way back to the hotel. Along the way, we stopped by for our first gelato of the trip.
The following day the weather turned cold and foggy, perhaps describing our feelings as we reluctantly bade farewell to this charming town with a unique experience
Things to Note:
Unlike other Italian cities, Venice is quite small and so very easy to navigate. Still it does not do harm to carry a map.
There are two train stations in Venice. Remember to stay in the island (train station St Lucia). There is where the beauty lies. Although room rates in the mainland (train station Mestre) is cheaper, this will mean having to shuttle between two islands which I feel will defeat the purpose to embracing this romantic city.
Next stop for the trip was Pisa. Mentioning Pisa and only one thing springs to mind – the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
From Venice we took a train to Florence. There are regular trains that run from Florence to Pisa so we grabbed an open ticket on arrival at Florence train station and only had to wait for less than 20 minutes for the connecting train.
The route to from Pisa Central train station to the Leaning Tower is pretty straightforward and takes roughly 30 minutes by foot. Along the way we walked passed a canal as well as their shopping belt.
Besides the Leaning Tower, there are also two other important but often overlooked attractions – the Duomo and the Bapistary. Together these are known as the “Square of Miracles” But often tourists just come for a day trip and stop by for the Leaning Tower and bypassing the other two attractions. The situation is made worse as the Duomo and the Bapistary require an admission ticket to enter, although one can still take pictures on the outside. Admission to the Leaning Tower is free unless you decide a scale to the top, which will require a hefty admission ticket. As I am aware only 40 people can be at the top of the tower at any one time so waiting time can be long during peak periods.
But the main purpose to visit Pisa is actually to just take a photo shot at this unique structure. Backed by trick photography, you can see all kinds of stunts in the photographs, including lifting, pushing, hugging and kissing the tower. Even aunties from China do it!
At night, we came out for coffee and to stroll down the shopping belt. At the last minute we decided to make our way back to the tower for a night photo. However along the way the streets were at times deserted and at times filled with various characters. We swiftly completed our task and quickly returned to the main shopping belt. However, by that time we reached the shopping area it was almost 8.30 pm and we were surprised that this area which was so active just an hour ago, was closed and deserted! Definitely not one for the faint hearted.
Unfortunately that is it for Pisa. So there is no necessity to stay in Pisa unless you want to visit our next stop, Cinque Terra
I have to admit before this trip, I have never heard of Cinque Terra. After doing some research, I only know it consists of 5 inter connecting villages and is touted as a must-visit place in Italy for some scenic photos.
The nearest city to Cinque Terra is from Pisa (approximately 40 min train ride). There are also trains from Florence but the journey is longer. As this is a small village, most people make a day trip and do not stay overnight. The room rates there can also be expensive and being a small village there is basically nothing to do when nightfall descends.
From Pisa, we took a train to La Spezia Central station. At one of the office counters located at the station, we bought an admission ticket to enter Cinque Terra (admission tickets include train tickets in the village). This village consists of 5 towns – Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterossa. We started our trip by taking the village train directly to the last stop of Monterossa.
At Monterossa, we witnessed the most extraordinary picture postcard view of the coastline with the cliffs that you can ever imagine. In fact “picture postcard” does not do justice to what your eyes serve you. You just have to be there to witness for yourself the serene beauty of the coastline. We spent quite a bit of time there before taking a hike to the next village of Vernazza. The journey took approximately 2.5hr and along the way we managed to catch more picture postcard scenery.
By the time we reached Vernazza, it was close to 1pm and after a longer than expected lunch break we missed the train departing from Vernazza. We then spent the remaining time in Vernazza, taking more coastline pictures before boarding the next scheduled train back to La Spezia Central for our return train to Pisa.
My take? The view is really unique and is not something you can see in other parts of Italy
Things to Note.
As this is a small village, trains between villages run at approximately 1-hour intervals. Estimated train arrival schedules are available from the ticket office so be sure to get them for better time management purposes.
Due to travelling time from Pisa and more waiting at La Spezia station (as trains run at 1hr intervals), we only have about 6 hours to spend in the villages which we felt did not give us sufficient time to cover more ground. So be sure to get a later return ticket back to Pisa or Florence but the trade off is it gets dark rather early during winter season so one has to get the balance right as there are no scenic views at night.
To trek or not to trek? That is a question the group has to decide. Other that the start of the track there is a substantial amount of upslope movement in the first 30 minutes, the path from Monterossa to Vernazza is actually pretty lean and straightforward and along the way you get to enjoy some scenic views that no train ride can give you. Along the way you can also meet fellow trekkers from different countries which gives extra motivation and encouragement to continue on. But then of course walking takes time and you might end up covering maximum 3 of 5 villages.
Trains of course will be faster and at one hour intervals, one will have more than sufficient time to cover all 5 villages.
As for me I will pick hiking any day simply because of the coastline view that you can only see from hiking. But at the back of my mind, the curiosity in me will keep wondering what does the other 3 villages look like? Did I miss spotting unique that can only be found in these 3 villages?
Definitely do not trek if it rains and ground gets to slippery or if it gets too dark. Personal safety always comes first
Before the start of our trip I was already lamenting that we should have allocated one more day to Florence. But as things trued out, we have already settled our train and hotel arrangements and so we had to make the best of our single day in Florence.
From Pisa we took a train to Florence. Once again after spinning around and asking for directions, we managed to locate our hotel and once luggage down, off we went to spend the rest of this precious day.
We walked back to the train station to catch Bus 12 to Pizzale Michelangelo. From there our plan was to trek back slowly to the main city and visiting attractions which were all within walking distance of each other. After about 45 minutes of bus ride and spinning through town, we reached our intended destination. This stop gives us a panoramic view of Florence city, with the most stand out feature being the Florence Duomo.
We then had our first gelato (which I would regret later) for the day and slowly walked towards Ponte Vecchio, enjoying the sights of buildings along the way. This is a stone bridge with shops, mainly goldsmith shops, located on both sides of the bridge with some scenic views.There was a hive of activities with many tourists strolling around. Since we had no intention of buying jewelry, we did not stay long and instead made our way to Palazzo Vecchio, the main town hall of Florence. Along the way we passed by some mouth-watering gelato (hence my regret) and some awesome pizza shops. We settled at one of those ready-made pizza shops for lunch where one big slice is enough to fill you to the brim.
The famed Uffizi gallery is next and it touted at one of the must-visit galleries in Italy. So this became our second museum / gallery visit of the trip. Inside you will find some wonderful art works and busts. As we were no art experts and the number of paintings overwhelming, we just walked through the gallery while trying to spot the more famous ones. Amongst them I saw the famed portraits of the Duke & Duchess of Urbino. You may not know what it is but once you see the painting below I am sure it will ring a bell.
Before this trip we already made a pact to spend some time stilling down in a corner, idling and drinking coffee and observing the crowds going on their daily business so this was exactly what we did next. The atmosphere was relaxing as people made their way through town with buskers performing on the streets. This is sure a life of pleasure. If only we could do this every day!
The last stop of the day was the Cathedral Di Santa Maria del Fiore, otherwise known as the Florence Duomo. The exterior itself is already a beauty so we were all the more curious to visit the inside. Entrance to the Duomo is free unless you intent to ascend to the top. This church itself is huge and I mean really mega. I don’t think I will ever see one that is so huge back home. The most prominent feature must be the big dome that we spotted during our earlier visit to Pizzale Michelangelo. Inside you can see some impressive carvings and murals, a common feature in Italian churches. At the basement there is a souvenir shop as well as a paid museum. Because we did not have much time left we decided to skip visiting the museum.
Things to Note:
Florence is a bit different from other Italian cities in the sense that it does not have its own metro system. So be sure to do your homework and know exactly the bus number you want to take beforehand to prevent time wasting. Another feature different from back home is that you do not pay for the bus fare when you board the bus. All tickets must be bought beforehand from at any tabachi stores (there is one in the train station). As with other cities, the fee is flat for any distance travelled within the allocated 90 minutes. Time starts ticking once you validate your ticket on the machine located inside the bus that you are taking.
A visit to Italy can never be completed without a stopover in the ancient Rome. It is a modern city with centuries old monuments built around it. Travellers can easily assess these sights either by foot or by the Metro.
I will cover this section through the places we visit
Directions: Take the metro to Ottaviano stop. From there just follow the crowd. It is about a 10 minutes walk to the Vatican
The home of the Pope and the holy city for Catholics, this is one of the stops that visitors must go. Due to a special event at St Peter’s Basilica, we actually had to split our visit into two days. Our first stop was the Vatican museum and Sistein Chapel. Do note that the entrance to the museum is well outside of the Vatican City, a good 10 minutes walk from Vatican City itself.
If Dugo’s palace was a prelude, this was certainly the centerpiece of attraction. Besides artifacts, we were amazed by beautiful murals after murals in an endless stream of impressive artworks. Only god knows the time and effort spent to painstakingly create these masterpieces. There were so many that visitors like us simply do not have the time to examine each piece of work one by one and can only stare in amazement as we moved along. In fact there were so many that I did not take any photos – memory card does not have enough space!
The last stop of the tour was a visit to the Sistein Chapel, home of the Pope. It’s a small chapel by Roman standards but never the less, we were once again amazed by each and individual masterpieces created by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the chapel. To think of it now, this was really a remarkable feat to do this bent over backwards, painting everything in detail on the ceiling for almost 4 years that only a genius can do it. Noted that photographs are strictly not allowed, although I managed to sneak one and was warned for my efforts. The task of the day was to spot The Creation of Adam, one of the most famous frescos in the world. We just managed to spot it, amongst the many frescos on the ceiling.
Still overwhelmed by what we saw, we then went back to the Vatican City but found a huge crowd converging for a special event. Unable to make our way in and with two more days still in Rome, we decided to come back to visit St Peter’s Basilica on another day.
On a separate day, we returned to the Vatican City to visit the St Peter’s Basilica. Security was extremely tight especially In light of recent Paris attack and we had to be searched and pass through a metal detector and bags subject to x-ray machine scanning. I had a hard time clearing the security because of the many metalic objects found on my body (camera, coins, belt, pouch bag). Some were even ordered to take off their shoes. On a day where the crowds were sparse, it still took us a good 30 minutes to get through. If Florence Duomo was huge, this would be a giant. We wandered around, looking at the building architecture, the murals and the various carvings on the wall. There were also groups of devotees carrying the cross into the church for prayers. After exiting the church, we also managed to spot the Swiss Guards.
Thing to note:
Being a sacred religious place, dress code must be strictly observed. The safest will be shirt and pants / skirts above knee length and definitely no singlet and slippers. Anyway being winter season, nobody in their right mind will go walking around in singlets and slippers.
As mentioned, security is extremely tight when visiting St Peter’s Basilica. So to minimize inconvenience, it would be good to carry the bare essentials for the visit. Ditch the haversack if possible in order to bypass the x-ray machine and hence faster clearance.
There are many guided tours available on the internet. If you want to know more, it will be good to sign for one. Otherwise, just read up from the internet before you go to have a better understanding. As for the promise of express queue promised by vaious tour groups, it is not really necessary during off season.
Lastly it will be good to check if there are any events in the Vatican on the day of your intended trip. Just like the first time when we went, the Vatican was closed earlier than usual for a special event so we had to come back another day. But if you have only one day to spare than you might miss it if you are unable to enter the Basilica, which i feel will be a real pity.
Spanish steps / Trevi Fountain
Directions: Take the Metro to Spagna stop for the Spanish steps, From there proceed by foot to Tervi Fountain. To visit Tervi fountain by Metro, alighting at Barberini stop will be nearer
Both are within walking distance of each other. The Spanish Steps was unfortunately under renovation so we just took a photo and moved on.
As for the Trevi fountain we were lucky that it was open after renovations one month before our trip. I have to say it is one of the iconic landmarks of Rome and most times it is crowded. With patience and some maneuvering, it is possible to get close to the fountain to get that ideal photo. In fact we went there 3 times and I took pictures of it both in day and night. On a quiet day I think I can just sit somewhere nearby and look at it and still won’t get bored. Great place to come.
Colosseum / Roma Forum
Directions: There is a dedicated Metro stop – Colosseo. Very easy to find.
I am sure the Colosseum needs no further introduction. The scene of many great battles purely for sport, this was a place where many men faced the ultimate fight, either amongst themselves or against beasts. Most were unwilling fighters (slaves or condemned prisoners), few put their names forward in search of fame and fortune. I stood there trying to imagine what the scene would be with crowds cheering and blood spilling on the arena. One thing that I was surprised was that the battle arena was not on an even ground, I was thinking how on earth do these warriors stand on the arena, on such an uneven surface with so many potholes and still kept their balance. This was so much different from the movie “Gladiator”.
It was only upon further exploration that I got the answer. Actually the gaps were meant to serve as traps On battle days the potholes would be filled with sand or covered with plank like structures for the unsuspecting warriors to enter. Then through a pulley like system, animals and beasts would be released from below onto the arena in a fight for survival. Blood sport at its cruelest
Like the most attractions, guided tours are available.
As for the Forum, it is just beside the colosseum and having purchased a two-in-one ticket, we decided to go. This was the center of ancient Roman life with important government buildings and daily activities conducted. What now remains are ruins of structures that used to stand in this place. The place is rather huge and it would take about 2 hours by foot to cover everything
Directions: Take metro Barberini stop and proceed by foot
Already into the 8th day of our trip, we entered into what is known as the tour fatigue stage. Having already seen quite a number of churches, we were also suffering from church fatigue. But the Roma Patheneon was an important architectural structure that we needed to cover. Originally built as a temple, it now serves as a church and is one of the best preserved ancient Roman structures still around. The things that I remembered most was the supporting pillars outside the church and the 43m high dome with sunlight shining through the hole at the top. Amazing view.
With most attractions on our planned itinerary covered and time to spare, we flipped our map and found that the Castel Sant'Angelo was prominently marked as an attraction. Before this we did not read up on it and certainly had no plans to visit it and later on I also found that most tour groups did not cover it. But being prominently marked and within a walking distance, we felt we have to give it a go. And my, was it worth the effort! Do go if you like castles.
Originally built as a mausoleum, it was then used as a fortress and castle and now is now open as a tourist attraction housing a small museum of impressive ancient armory. Besides the impressive armory collection, including shields, swords, guns and armour, we also slowly made our way to the top of the castle where we were treated to a paranormal view of Rome city. Impressive! Along the way, we also saw castle defensive positions like high walls, windows where fire arrows and boulders could be hurled at advancing enemies. We also saw a catapult and boulders on display.
Another prominent icon to note is the bronze statue of the Michael the Archangle perched on top of the castle. It serves as a standout symbol of the castle and has been destroyed various stages before its present stage.
Directions: The nearest major city is Naples. From Napoli Central train station, take the local train under the Circumvesuviana line towards Sorrento and alight at Pompeii Scavi. Like Cinque Terra, trains run at regular intervals so be sure to get the train timetable from the station before departure to plan the timing of your return trip.
Pompeii needs no further introduction. Immortalized by the great volcanic eruption at Mount Vesuvius, the disaster buried the city under ash and soot and preserving the city in pristine condition. Unlike ancient ruins in other parts of the world where what’s left are usually pillars and half buildings, we can actually see the find details of ancient life, observing how people go about in their daily lives. It is a big excavation site which will require at least 4 hours of walking time in order to cover the majority of sites that are open to public.
My favorite will be the Amphitheatre, which certainly reminds me of a football stadium. Inside there are photos of excavation sites as we as mummified bodies of the dead, although till now I am still not sure if the bodies are real bodies or sculptures.
As with other sites in Italy, options are available for guided tours. This is one site where guided option will be an excellent choice. Another option is to rent an audio guide. Try to get your hands on a map otherwise you will be clueless as to what you are visiting and can only second guess. But things are improving with more signage coming up although these are still insufficient if you want to understand more. Otherwise, just read up and watch you tube before you go!
There are also sister sites along the Napoli-Sorrento train line including Ercolano Scavi (otherwise known as Herculaneum which is smaller but said to be more well preserved than Pompeii) and Oplonti Scavi. It is a big task to cover all sites in one day so a multiple-day admission ticket covering all sites can be purchased from the ticket office should one wishes to see more. However, as we only allocated one day to Pompeii, we had to ditch visiting Herculaneum, which was a pity.
The last city stop of the tour was Milan, the fashion city and home of the famed Milan Duomo. Like Rome, we had to scour for our apartment (quite easy to find actually if you know the direction).
We then had to rush to Santa Maria delle Grazie, having booked a 4.45pm viewing of Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper.
We arrived very early, having been afraid to miss the show of a lifetime. It was hard to get the tickets (only available online and must be booked well in advance as they are limited and sold out fast), which made this viewing session even more precious.
The church itself was simple enough and not as elaborate or big like the rest we seen so far. It was the treasures inside that made it so unique and attained its status as an UNESCO World Heritage site. We waited in line, feeling excited like kids going for their first movie. I then learnt that to preserve the painting, admission is subject to 15 minute blocks for a maximum of 25 patrons per visit (That is why tickets are hard to get). Photography is allowed although no flash. I then jokingly told my friend even if left with last 3 shots, I had to take a photo and willing to forgo taking pictures for the rest of the trip. As luck would have it, I was cursed by own word as my memory card ran out of space so I had to painfully delete by photos from old trips (lucky those have already been transferred to my computer) in double quick time before we entered the viewing gallery.
Then came the grand show. It was strange because this is the first time I visited an "art gallery" with only two paintings. There was another one at the other end of the wall but most people did not spend much time looking at it. It was an overwhelming experience to see this famed painting live and I felt so privileged and honored to do so. I then spend the rest of the precious 15 minutes taking photos from different angles and lighting, using both camera and phone and hoping to catch the one best shot out of so many. Unfortunately as flash photography was not allowed, the end product was not really that ideal. But still this was an unique experience. I should think this will be one of the most photographed single artifacts for any of my overseas trip!
A trip to Italy can never be completed without a visit to one of its main football stadiums. World Cup champion four times, the most recent in 2006, Italy has always been one of the powerhouses of world football. However, after the “Calciopoli” scandal in 2006, Italian club football has never quite reached the dizzy heights it achieved in the 1990s, where teams regularly sweeping the major European trophies. But still never underestimate the power of Italian soccer and the fans' passionate love for the beautiful game.
I picked San Siro stadium as this was the only viable one in my itinerary. Rome does not have stadium tours, Florence schedule was too packed and I did not visit Turin. This was also one which combined a museum with a stadium tour. With my touring entourage not interested in football (they went to Como instead but bad luck would hit as there was a worker’s strike that day which disabled all train services), I went on it alone.
I first dropped by the merchandise store where the 2 great city rivals – Inter Milan and AC Milan share. It was not cheap with a replica jersey costing Euro 120. I then went for the museum tour which displayed trophies and memorabilia for both teams, including signed jerseys, player cards, past press cuttings, photographs, Challenge cups and gifts exchanges with opposing teams. The most memorable one must be to see the busts of the fabulous 3, Rudd Gulit, Frank Rijkarrd and Marco van Basten. Also on display was the plaque commemorating the 2007 Champion League final between AC Milan and Liverpool, with AC Milan winning 2-1 on the night for their 7th continental title. This is one museum where I went through every single artifact on display in detail!
Next was the stadium tour where we were allowed a peek in the dressing room. During the tour I also met several passionate AC Milan fans from Indonesia. AC Milan’s look futuristic with cushioned lay back chairs surrounding a club logo with reminded me of players going for an inter-galactic, Star Trek like meeting! Inter’s look more ordinary, with benches for players.
Then I finally went to the stadium proper. Unfortunately, the pitch was under maintenance so I was not allowed to step on it. Despite that, I still had a field day taking pictures around the stadium and this was also the first time I get to see the famous grass growing technology which was so often mentioned in newspapers back home. This was where artificial lighting, arrange in racks, was shone on the grass to stimulate the growth of grass.
Then it was time to go as I bade farewell to this famous stadium. The only thing now missing is to attend an actual match!
Before my stopover at the San Siro stadium, I went to the Da Vinci Art and Science Museum. It is actually more like a science centre and nothing much on the great man itself. But it does provide interesting information on everyday science information like energy needs, trash collection, everyday packaging, food supply and global warming issues. It is a good break from the conventional churches and art galleries that we see so often during this trip. This is also a good place to stimulate the young mind's interest in science.
Directions: Take Milan metro red line to S Amborgio. Noted that the main ‘entrance’ is actually the exit. The entrance is actually located at an obscure corner. Ask around and you will find it.
The last stop of the day is Mlian Duomo, which also borders Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, Milan’s main shopping belt. The Grand Old Dame is a sure beauty itself. It reminds me of the Taj Mahal and is definately the standout representation of Milan. Security was tight, like the Vatican. Inside was another grand structure but perhaps because of church fatigue, we just moved along. Noted tickets have to be purchased before you join the queue. And no metal or glass bottles allowed. The lady in front of me was refused entry because she carried a metal water bottle!
The visit to Milan Duomo can never be completed without ascending to the top. Visitors have the option to take the stairs or the elevator (costs a bit more by elevator). This is where you get to see some magnificent architectural works up close and personal as well as some elaborate carvings. Not forgetting a paranormal view from the top of the duomo. A definite must.
As for Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, it is a girl’s paradise (and a guy’s worst nightmare). Milan is well known as one of the fashion capital of the world and short of going to the outlets, this is where you can find all your LVs, Gucci, Prada, Versace, all rolled into one location. As it was Christmas season, there were also many other pushcart stalls selling food and Christmas stuff alongside the Duomo walking path. It was a great festive occasion and we were so glad to be part of it. To get away from the crowds, shoppers can also choose to go further down and away from the main shopping belt. Just follow the direction of the tram line and you can still find an amazing array of shops.
We also covered the La Scala Opera house, a place where all classical music and opera lovers must go. During, non performance, it also doubled up as a small museum, mainly with portraits of famous composers and opera singers. We also had a chance to step inside a box seat without paying for the box seat price and were lucky enough to catch an orchestra preparing themselves during rehearsal.
On the last night of our trip, we went to the canal near our apartment. It was packed with festive activities as we took a slow walk and immersed ourselves into the Christmas spirit.
With this, our 12 days tour concluded and it was time to pack our bags and feelings to return home.
Milan is a much easier city to navigate than Rome with its clearer signage. Also with trams travelling all over the city, it makes every part of the city easily connectable. All attractions mentioned above can be easily be reached by Metro. Single ticket, costs $1.50, valid for 90 minutes from first use. A 24-hour ticket can be purchased from any Metro or Tabacchi shop at Euro $4.50 (note the urban fare limit though. Some stops not covered although most tourists will not go there anyway). Two day pass cost about 8 Euros (can’t remember the exact price)
Here are my thoughts on this beautiful country
Surprisingly, most Italians speak at least some basic English. They are also willing to reply in English. I had initially thought they are unwilling to speak English even if they can do so. Also some English words are similar sounding to Italian so some words you can second guess their meaning. I finally understand why Italian managers like Claudio Ranerie and Fabio Capello who ply their trade in the English football are able to hold press conferences in decent English a matter of months. Most restaurants we visit also have menu in Italian and English. So language is never an issue in Italy as long as you understand your ABCs
Traffic & Directions / Cars
Italy is a pedestrian’s dream. Most walking streets only have the occasional car. Traffic lights and zebra crossings are plenty. Also drivers are slow and they will give way to pedestrians, unlike in China or India where cars do not give way and it is the pedestrian that has to give way!
As for directions, it is compulsory to carry a map and make sure the Group has someone who can read maps and has a good sense of direction. Even this does not help though as signage can be sparse and maps not as detailed so sometimes asking locals for directions is also necessary. Most locals we meet are willing to assist.
Another observation is that Italians love their hatchbacks and small cars. We saw so many on the roads. Not sure why. Maybe someone can enlighten me?
As for inter-city train journeys, it is pretty straightforward. Just make sure you locate the correct platform (information can be gathered from the departure schedule, similar to the ones you check for airplane departure), followed by the correct coach number (note trains have repetitive seat numbers but differentiated by different coach numbers). There are occasional delays but overall, the train departure timing is accurate. So do not come rushing in at the last minute. And it is good to arrive at least 15 minutes before departure since different train stations have different layouts so you need to know where the platforms are located at each individual station. Lastly do not ever throw away your train ticket until you alight from the train as these are subject to checks by the train master. But after one experience, you will be an expert in taking trains!
Pizza, sandwiches, pasta and spaghetti is the staple diet. Don’t expect to find rice. In cities like Florence it is possible to find Chinese food given the large Chinese community (expensive though). And we also find a lot of Japanese restaurant so you can go to one if you miss Asian food.
Definitely worth trying is gelato. Back home, I hardly try them but in Italy they are plenty and they are all appetizing. Even thought the weather is cold, it is irresistible to have one once per day. A small cone costs about $1.50 to $3 with some shops offering two to three scoops so be sure to hunt around before buying
And of course who can forget cheap wine! It is a pity my Group does not drink so we didn’t buy any. Just make sure not to get a hangover before the next day’s travelling schedule.
Lastly who can resist cheap chocolates? I myself also bought at least 10 bars during the trip!
It is noted in some café or bar, do note you are levied a cover charge for using a table. It ranges from $1 to $3 per person. That is why in some cafe or bar you find a lot of standing customers drinking coffee or having a sandwich and the tables empty!
Being a country that produces so many master artists with some of the greatest masterpieces of the world, Italy is a country that can really draw. Graffiti, or street art, seems to be prevalent and the authorities are pretty relaxed about this. Some can be really nice while others can be an eyesore or attributed to vandalism. And interestingly, trains are also not spared. I wonder how SMRT will feel about this?