Rediscovering Italy

The picturesque Italian countrysideI first came to Italy in 2006. It was one of the first stops on my just-begun round-the-world adventure. Italy was everything I thought it would be and more. If there was a country that lived up to the hype, it was Italy.

Backpacking around Italy, I spent most of my time in the north. Whenever I tryied to get farther south, I always found an excuse to stay somewhere longer, and I never made it farther than Rome before previous plans dragged me north again towards Austria.

As the years went by, I often thought about returning. The wine, the food, the unexplored places. Italy called to me. This year I finally decided there’d been enough thinking and needed to be more doing. This summer’s return to Europe would include Italy.

More importantly, this trip would include southern Italy, the place I could never quite seem to get to last time. But this time, it turned out I couldn’t quite get there again.

My plan was to come into the south via Greece and work my way north to Rome. But that changed when G Adventures offered me a tour through northern Italy. Starting in Venice, the trip would take through the Cinque Terre, Florence and, finally, Rome. Eager to do the tour, I changed my plans and headed to Venice.
Discovering Ponte Vecchio in Florence
While the tour used local transportation, local hotels, and had a mix of personal time and group activities, the trip moved too quickly for me. I like to spend more time in places than the few days we had in each destination. But the tour wasn’t for me. It was for the others who booked the trip. I was just an add-on. The others on the trip had a limited time in Italy, so for them, the trip was perfect.

While the trip wasn’t the south, it gave me a chance to rediscover all the cities I’d visited years back. In Venice, I met up with travel writer Lara Dunston (who I interviewed years back). She brought me to some local markets and introduced me to a restaurateur, who gave a lesson on Venice seafood and picking fish at the market. I got to marvel at the buildings and explore areas without tourist menus, where prices drop in half and crowds don’t get in your way. My first visit to Venice left me with a lukewarm impression, but seeing it again a second left me realizing just how wonderful the city really is.
The canals and bridges of Venice, Italy
In Florence, a Twitter follower of mine gave me a market tour. I learned all about the local meats, wine, cheese, and spices. I even bought myself an old bottle of wine to celebrate someday in the distant future. I went to bars devoid of tourists, final-ly explored the Uffizi (overrated), and wandered streets far away from the center. I revisited my favorite gelato place so many times, they knew my name before I left.

In the Cinque Terre, I hiked the hard trails I missed the first time. I explored the places I loved before, ate at some restau-rants, and played guide to some of my tour group members. The Cinque Terre is one of the most beautiful places on Earth and if I could live anywhere in Italy, it just might be there.
cinque terre
In Rome, I saw the Sistine Chapel, went underground, finally found some sushi, and visited my favorite spot, Trastevere. Instead of racing from site to site, I relaxed and hung out. I walked around and relaxed. I have fond memories of my first time in Rome. I was with good friends and sometimes you remember places so well because of who you’re with. I wasn’t with them this time, and Rome drew me into it.

Coming back to Italy allowed me to explore below the surfaces I only scratched the first time. And that’s the beauty of returning to places you’ve been before. It gives you a chance to get a deeper sense of the place and culture. We often race to new destinations, thinking only of the places we haven’t been without considering the places we already have. Coming back to northern Italy wasn’t part of the plan, but sometimes it’s when you skip the plan that things work out.

And southern Italy? Well, I made it to Naples and Pompeii, but that’s another story…

For more information, visit my page on backpacking Europe or my guide to Italy.

  1. Italy’s great! I have Italian heritage, and when I visited my long lost relatives, I was stuffed full of great food and wine all week!

    There are some offbeat travel attractions which are definitely not mainstream.

    Enjoy the organised chaos that is Italy!

  2. Hi Matt,
    When you hiked around Cinque Terre, did you do the steep trail #8 above Vernazza? That was my favorite — a great escape from the more crowded coastal trail (#2). We have you to thank for directing us to Cinque Terre. We rented an apartment for a week in Vernazza in April, and it ranks as one of our favorite places if not the favorite during our 10 months of global family travel. We saw your blog post and photo approx 6 months ago and altered our itinerary to go there. My advice is to stay in one of the picturesque Cinque Terre towns overnight so as to experience the place in early mornings and evenings, when the day-trippers leave. Thanks for what you wrote, and I certainly hope to return to these places in Northern Italy.

  3. Ross

    I have yet to venture to Italy however i hope this will change at some point this year. A terrific post Matt that certainly tickles the travel taste buds. Everybody i know who has visited has loved Italy, you seem to, and I’m sure i will too :)

    One question: If you could do only one thing in Venice, what would it be?

    • NomadicMatt

      Go to the morning markets. Amazing food and you get to see all the locals pick what they eat. Follow the little old ladies for the best fish.

  4. I’ve heard really great things about Gap Adventures and while I likely won’t use them in South and Central America would consider them for some of the more difficult countries I plan to visit afterwards.

  5. I really love to go to Italy and I’m considering the fact that i will go there next year. I admire the different sites Italy has to offer and I want to take every oppurtunities to capture this moment behind my camera. Thanks for the post!

  6. Larry

    Wow-I went to Italy for the first time this year (2010)…and amazingly, found it very loudly did NOT live up to it’s hype, at all. I was so disappointed. Though, I did find Tuscany to be utterly gorgeous, and as beautiful as its photos. But I avoided the crowed by travelling in the springtime. And, the cost really was not worth it…didn’t get what I paid for.

    Anyway, it’s good to know Italy is still working it’s magic for some.
    But, man, were my husband, son and I slightly bummed. I think Italy is 2 parts itself, one part placebo=the traveller has to add his/her own perception into the reality, in order for it to live up to it’s hype. These days, you can get most things Italian, and better quality, here in the US. Except, of course, for the old buildings (:, and the very nice Italians! They really are gracious folks over there!
    But, I wish the present day Italians would focus on a new renaissance, b/c it’s all very past oriented. And while that is lovely, it does get, well, old…and overated.
    [ps-I have lived in Taiwan, East Africa, Caribbean, and travelled alot beyond that…plus a few different regions of the US. Just for perspective…
    I still think SFO, Marin and Sonoma are perhaps the most beautiful places I’ve ever been/lived. Good livin’ quotient is high. Thanks for your blog.

    • Giula

      Irm “These days, you can get most things Italian, and better quality, here in the US”

      Totally disagree… maybe you’re just used to the US version of Italian food. But quality is quality. You won’t find it in touristic restaurants etc but you can find it on my table every day.
      Giulia, from Italy

      Matt: I’m from Northern Italy (Genova) – will spend a month in Southern Italy this summer! Never been there :)

  7. Larry

    I should add-places I visited included puglia region, rome, and tuscany-including cities and small medieval wine town [=very cool, but honestly, how freakin’ much salted pork product and cheese can one nation eat? But then, I’ve never been to Germany.]

  8. Larry

    I was told by several people that if one lives in CA, don’t bother with Amalfi coast or CT….that the Mendocino and Sonoma coasts are just as beautiful, w/o the crowds. Anyway, I do live in Southern CA, and the coastal areas I did see, were dirtier than CA beaches for the most part. And none were any better than CA. Just food for thought-I personally would go to Italy for the fashion and old architecture. Heck, we didn’t even have great food most of the time-it was adequate. And yes, we were off the beaten track and avoided tourist menus.
    Okay, rant done here! (:

  9. Hi Matt! Just came across your blog. My partner and I recently spent 5 months in Italy (as part of our long-term travel-in-a-motorhome thing we’re doing) and I can completely understand why you never quite made it further south – Tuscany, Cinque Terre, the Amalfi Coast – you could spend years just in the north and still have more to see and do.

    Having said that I was kinda bummed for you that you didn’t get further south. Sicily was by far the highlight of our time in Italy (apart from some awesome friends we made in the north). Everyone says the Irish are the friendliest people in Europe…It’s not true, it’s the Sicilians! – and this is coming from people who spontaneously decided to go to Sicily because we’d just been to Ireland and heard that Sicilians were as friendly as the Irish. It’s worth going there to meet the people alone. Also, if you do ever make it there, be sure to let us know so we can give you the address of a place that makes the best pizza we’ve ever tasted for less than the price of a Pizza Hut pizza.

  10. I always enjoy reading about travels in Italy. I spent the summer of 2006 in Italy as well, mainly based in central Perugia. While I did enjoy the sites of Rome and Florence, it was northern Italy that captured my imagination and what will eventually bring me back to Italy. The Dolomites are absolutely breathtaking and easily compare to many of Italy’s other masterpieces.

  11. Hi Matt

    Nice post! So glad you loved Italy even more this time. You must get even further south next time to Calabria and Puglia – amazing places.

    It was so nice for Terry and I to finally meet you in the flesh in Venice. Hope you enjoyed the spritzes at our palazzo! You might be interested to see how our story on Francesco, the restaurateur we introduced you to who showed us around the fish markets.

    Looking forward to you showing us ‘your’ New York when we’re there!

  12. Jenna

    *sigh* I love Italy, too. It’s the first place I fell in love with as a traveler. It has so much to offer and the history is so rich. I returned 3 times after the first time and had the same experience of having time to, as you said, get a deeper sense of place and culture. Unfortunately, I haven’t been to Cinque Terre and though I have wanted to go, your description of it as the most beautiful place makes me really want to go now! I’ve been trying to talk my husband into moving there, but he’s voting for Portugal…we’ll see!

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