I was a little worried about feeling lonely over the holidays, especially because we were planning to go to Italy, just the two of us. I wasn't that worried, because I knew it would be lovely to spend time alone with Prince Charming in one of the most romantic places in the world. I mean, Italy for Christmas? Yes, please. On the other hand, Italy for Christmas? Would all the Italian families be feasting with their massive extended families (and thus not around to open the museums or run the restaurants)? Would two feel like too small a group? Well, yes, and no, respectively. Here's why Italy for the holidays is still a good idea, despite most of the Italians being on holiday themselves, along with 9 other things you might want to know about spending your Christmas and New Year in Italy.
1. The streets are still filled with people.
Indeed, most of the Italians were no where to be found. However, we found that the streets were still filled with people, providing a joyful camaraderie.
On Christmas day, we took a six-hour walk around Rome, keeping in mind that very few actual museums or sights would be open. Our goal was to hit the major photo opportunities that were (or could be) outdoors, like the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, and Trevi Fountain. It was fun to be with the crowds of people, and romantic to not have any obligations on Christmas day other than to enjoy our time together.
Piazza di Trevi was alive with people. Pulsing with camera flashes. Everywhere we looked, we saw someone waving us out of the way so that they could take a photo of someone behind us. Overwhelmed, we got out of the virtual mosh pit that was the steps and space in front of the fountain. After catching our breath and a regroup, we dove back in, trading photos with another couple. Then we got out. There were tourists from all over the world. In this photo, you can see the range of headgear from Santa hat to beanie to hijab, reflecting the amazing diversity of the crowd.
2. Foodies beware.
Maybe it's merely a testament to how much Prince Charming spoils me with his culinary skills, but I wasn't as impressed with the food in Italy as I was on previous trips. I am extremely spoiled when it comes to food. I also have very specific standards when it comes to restaurant service, standards born out of growing up with Southern hospitality, living in casual and friendly California, and being friends with a chef-caterer who would pray and send good vibes into the food as she was preparing it. So basically, food is everything: a feeling of welcome, an invitation to friendship, and a spiritual experience.
Food Should Not Equal Stress
Sadly, over the holidays in Italy, even choosing a restaurant felt anxiety-inducing. Once we did, we encountered stressed-out hosts, unimaginative fare, and servers who on more than one occasion, simply forgot to bring us what we ordered. And this happened despite researching restaurants, looking up reviews, and asking for recommendations. Arguably, our best food experiences were when we assembled our own picnic meals from piazza markets or from places like this butcher shop. And then there was the stellar gelato recommendation from our tour guide, Max. He said that we'd be tempted to settle for lesser gelato because shops popped up all around Giolitti to skim off tourists who wouldn't wait in line. But we waited and were rewarded. And of course, the coffee was astrologically good. 3. AirBnB rocks. If you haven't gone for it yet, go for it! Pay to stay in a stranger's house. This is not just for the money you can save, but for the richness of the experience. When you stay on someone's home, you get to experience how a local lives, day to day. And when else can you get away with snooping around in someone's bathroom cabinet? Hotels can be fun, but eventually they all start to feel the same. With AirBnb, we could afford to stay in a prime location in Trastevere, just a stroll away from everywhere noteworthy in Rome, and a few blocks from the Tiber River.
And our rooftop view was practically cinematic.
Finally, the clock on the wall helped us relax -- and showed that the owner of our apartment had a Mediterranean sense of time.
4. Go ahead and dork out.
I'm not sure how to segway (groan) into this one, so I'll just say it: Go for it! Last time I was exploring a big city, and my feet hurt, I saw these people dorkily zooming by on Segways. I looked at them with skepticism laced with envy. And internally mocked them. But a Segway tour is as fun as your inner child thinks it will be. Or more fun. A Segway tour of Ancient Rome was part of Prince Charming's birthday present, but we enjoyed it equally. It's a bit pricey at 75 Euros a person, but WORTH EVERY CENT!
5. Florence has the world's best window shopping.
That is, if you like colorfully bizarre and offbeat displays, which I do. You go to Italy hungry for aesthetic marvels (and pasta) and you quickly get tired of beautiful ancient architecture. So in Florence, you hope to be surprised by new art, even after all this time. After all, Florence was the birthplace of the Renaissance. Maybe it's still happening, you hopefully think. Or at least I did, and wasn't disappointed when on our first evening stroll, we were beckoned into a art gallery that had some surprising works by a modern artist on display. It felt like a magical moment to duck into a gallery where we were the only two people enjoying the art, while outside the windows the Arno river sparkled in the night.
But then just down the road we found out where all the out-of-work artists are employed. Some of the storefront displays were wildly creative, including a Christmas tree made from toilet-paper wrapped Barbie dolls, a flamingo wearing a necktie, and this beautiful red ballgown, that upon closer inspection, is actually bedding.
6. Museums are stressful.
I have no idea how Prince Charming got this picture that makes me look alone with the Birth of Venus. The reason I'm looking so thrilled in it is because a) I'm afraid we are about to get caught using a camera (even sans flash) and b) I'm being jostled on every side by invisible hordes of exhausted and grumpy tourists.
I'm not sure if the crowds have gotten worse since I was last in Italy or the holiday numbers combined with the limited opening hours clusterf*cked things up. At Florence's Uffizi Galleries, we stumbled along with the waves of sweaty masses that trudged through each gallery. Museum workers had lost that "I'm-working-with-the-world's-greatest-art" sparkle in their eyes days ago. Perhaps years ago. Yuck.
Breaking the "Rules"
Oh, and also, I'd like to tell you that Prince Charming and I are officially "the reason Americans are hated" all over the world, as stated by another American tourist who seemed to pop up nearby us throughout our visit to the museum. We may have deserved her ire. You see, we know something that the other polite American, British, and Asian tourists in the line didn't know: Italians don't queue. There's no sanctity of place in line. Rather, it is respected to push yourself through the crowd where you need to go. Spain was like this to, and Israel and Palestine are similar. I'll never forget attending Mass in Spain and at the end, suddenly it's a holy mob shuffle to get up to Communion. It must be a Mediterranean thing.
So anyway, we knew that the Italians running the museum were probably laughing at the tourists standing in line. And they had sold us an appointment ticket to get in at 4:30. It was 4:30. The museum closed at 6. Other people in line had been standing there for an hour after their appointment to get in. We could go to the back, and get into the museum 15 minutes before closing, while watching the savvier travelers cut in line while our stress levels soarded, or we could cut. So yes, we cut in line. And we did it right in front of the official. He didn't care. In fact, he allowed us in, right after the Italian guy that cut in front of us. Still, despite doing something culturally approved in Italy, I felt bad for doing what I knew was a no-no in my own culture.
7. You may not want to get medical care here.
File this one under the sadly hilarious. Or hilariously sad. I'm not sure which one. Not only is this Italian health care worker smoking, but he's smoking in his ambulance. This was the first thing I saw as I emerged from Florence's central train station, and it tickled me. Do you think that he'll keep smoking as he speeds through the streets on the way to an emergency? Or will he throw the cigarette out his window? Or will he take the time to get out, stub it out, and throw it away safely, all while precious seconds on the clock tick away? Do you think the cigarette smoke will bother the patient in the back, possibly struggling to breathe what could be his or her last breath? Like the line thing, what he's doing is a cultural no-no in the U.S., and probably totally fine in Italy.
8. Pisa is a fun day trip.
Just a pleasant hour and change train ride from Florence,
Pisa was a decision we left until the last minute. We almost didn't go, because there is so much to see in Florence. And we knew that Pisa was simply a glorified photo op. Yet, we couldn't resist taking photos with the world famous icon, La Torre Pendente. The Leaning Tower of Pisa has become a symbol of travel, right up there with the airplane and the globe. It may surpass the Eiffel tour in its fame. It was exciting to be there, to see that it really does lean, and to take all the silly pictures that we swore we wouldn't take. Plus the weather was beautiful. After our photo shoot, we enjoyed sitting down for pizza. Less for the pizza and more for the location. After the host sat us, I looked up and saw that the Torre Pendente was in full view. "Really?" I said. "Really" the waiter replied, without missing a beat. Really.
9. How to escape the snobbery of Venice.
If familiarity breeds contempt, I understand why Venetians seem to hate tourists. Venice is overrun, but that doesn't lessen the beauty and romance of Venice. I recommend a gondola ride on the Grande Canal. New Year's Eve in Venice was crowded, Bellini-guzzling fun. Followed by fireworks.
To escape the snobbery of the areas around the Grande Canal and San Marco Square, I recommend a trip out to Lido Beach, another island of Venice that we accessed by water taxi.
There's a small club of crazies called the Ibernisti (it means hibernators) who bond over a daily dip in the frigid waters of the Adriatic Sea every winter day. On New Years, the tradition attracts bigger crowds, with families coming out to see the crazy swimmers start off a New Year in style. You know, with pain. A lot of pain. Followed by a lot of adrenaline.
Can I Join?
I had been telling everyone that I was going to do this - swim with the Ibernisti on New Year's in Venice. So I had to. And I wanted to. Because I had to. And I wanted to. Sort of. It was cold! Just moments before noon, when the first dip of 2014 was scheduled to take place, I couldn't see anyone in their swimwear. I had to join the group! Where was everyone getting ready? Finally, I saw a man in a red swimsuit duck out of a tent. I ran up to him, gesticulating wildly that I would like to swim with the Ibernisti. He smiled broadly, clapped an arm around my shoulder, and ushered me into the tent, where about a dozen men appeared to be hurriedly changing clothes. "Non guardere!" my guide said brightly to the other men. Don't watch her dress. Fortunately, I had my swimwear on under my clothes, so there was no need for nudity. And don't worry, the only Italian sausage I saw that day was the one they served us with lentils after our swim. We charged out into the water, decorated with red and white balloons. There appeared to be subgroups of the Ibernisti club, for example, one group of women all wore necklaces made of white ribbon. I quickly made friends, as one does when wondering exactly how far into the water qualifies as "swimming," when it's so cold. The answer? Up to your neck, but not past your ears because the frigid water can hurt your ears badly if you don't have a swim cap to cover them. After a respectable amount of time in the water, we emerged, took a hurried group photo, and ran through the now-warm air to dress. Afterwards, a band played Beach Music. Songs like "Sitting on the dock of the Bay," seemed out of place for Venice, but oddly fitting, and added to the warm, small-town cameraderie at Lido Beach. I made balloon animals for the kids, which was really the first time I'd been able to successfully do that in Italy. Italians and tourists become suspicious when you try to give them anything, because the M.O. of the gypsies and street salespeople is to "give" you something and then demand payment or donation in return. By the time I had gotten comfortable making balloon animals for the kids around me, we felt pleasantly far from the snobbery of Venice, and far from the tourist scenes throughout the big cities in Italy.
10. Milan is good for a Last Supper.
I'd been to Milan before, and it was raining. Guess what? It was raining this time too. We knew industrial, urban, rainy Milan wouldn't be our favorite city, and only planned to spend one day there. We wanted to see da Vinci's The Last Supper. You have to buy tickets in advance to see the famous quasi-fresco. It's one of those things where the museum sells tickets for an affordable price, and as soon as they go on sale, tourist agencies buy them all up and resell them at triple the price. When we arrived for our appointment, the museum was telling disappointed visitors that the tickets were sold out for several months. Yet we were able to buy them just a few days before our visit from an agency. If you want to pay the cheaper price, make sure you buy the tickets several months or more in advance. The Last Supper was more faded and in worse shape than I thought it would be, but still worth seeing. I appreciated that they let small groups in so that the space wasn't crowded. They also provided a docent who explained details for us about the painting. They didn't let us take photos in the refectory itself, but we got this one of Prince Charming with a replica just to capture the memory of being there. Milan was good for our own personal last supper as well. Finally tired of pasta, we went to a sushi restaurant, and also a sort of bakery-salad place with communal tables. Both delicious.
Have you been or are you planning to go to Italy over the holidays? Comment below on your experience and let us know if you have any questions.