Pack a Change of Clothes and a Pillow for the Road for When You Drift Off

With three years gone by, I still look at a framed picture of the Eiffel Tower in my living room and have to remind myself that the photographer was me. Some travel experiences are so other-worldly and ethereal that it’s hard to believe I was really present there within time and space.

It’s been three months since I came home from Italy, and I already feel that same disbelief and awe at the experience. Looking back through these photos with a friend recently, I was delighted and astonished by the sights and memories, and realized the time had come to get it written down.

Traveling outside my own country always feels like a tall order for me – a task to be risen to, when travel anxiety still plagues me crossing state lines – but it’s not to be missed and worthwhile at every turn. So, after my inaugural journey “across the pond” to visit Scotland, England, Wales, and France, the next stop was an obvious one – Italy!

Stars aligning as they do, I met a sweet Italian couple in New York City in 2012 when we gathered there with fellow White Collar fans to tour locations from the show and watch filming. We repeated this experience annually for three years, and during White Collar’s final season, my cousin Tracey joined me on the trip and also met and hit it off with Grace and Pino.

Even after White Collar ended, Grace and I kept in touch with emails and postcards to and from Italy. So, I knew when I finally made it to Italy, I’d be among friends. I’d originally thought to make the trip solo in 2015, but it didn’t fall into place, and in hindsight, I know why. I mentioned my trip plans to Tracey, knowing she’d remember Grace, and she also expressed an interest in seeing Italy. Her husband Adam immediately chimed in and said that we should both go and make it a girls’ trip. Five minutes later, I was twice as excited to be planning the trip of a lifetime for two!

Many months and a great deal of research later, we were very excited to board the first leg of our flight from DC to Dublin, eager to have bad airplane food and not sleep a wink on our way to Italia!

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Time skipped ahead an extra 5 hours while we flew across the Atlantic, so we had breakfast in the Dublin airport at 1am, home time, then boarded our flight to Milan with the sunrise.

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And we still didn’t sleep. But the views were nice.

Adrenaline kicked in with full force when we walked out of the airport in Milan to see Grace and Pino all smiles, waiting for us. I was wide awake again then.

Having anticipated the jet lag and lack of energy that would catch up with us quickly, we had a light tourism day in Milan, hitting the highlights. Of course, while we walked toward said highlights, I found even the “simplest” of buildings enchanting.

And then we rounded on this architectural majesty – the Duomo di Milan.

Grace and Pino offered to line up for us at the Duomo while we ducked into the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, an ornate shopping mall built in the 1800s. You can see it to the left of the church in the photo above. Here is what it looked like on the inside.

The line to see inside the Duomo was very long, but fast moving. We caught up with Grace and Pino to wait out the last of it.

Once we got inside, I was quite taken with the way the sunlight through the stained glass created a reflection on the stone columns.

The sheer size of the building was incredible, with windows seeming to reach up forever.

I turned back for a few parting shots as we turned to walk toward more Milan sights.

In case a massive, ancient, breath-taking cathedral wasn’t enough of a “Welcome to Italy,” this certainly was – finding myself standing in front of one of those most famous pieces of art in the world – Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” The painting was completed in 1498.

We were all pretty dead on our feet by this point, so we cat-napped our way to Sandigliano to spend the evening relaxing at Grace’s house. She and her family prepared a wonderful feast for our arrival, including traditional Italian appetizers, a special bottle of Italian wine chosen for the occasion, lasagna, and tiramisu. We all congregated around Grace’s long, beautiful dining table, ate our fill (and then some) and talked for hours. I only regretted that my eyes refused to stay open any longer to enjoy more of the lively discussion and laughter.

Grace’s balcony view was also quite stunning. I spent some time standing on it when we arrived the first evening and before we departed the next morning.

Before we got on the road to Verona, we had a surprise stop in a little village called Candelo (in historic Ricetto) very near Grace’s place, where we had only our clothes and gadgets to remind us we hadn’t stepped back in time several centuries.

In planning this trip, there was so much to see in such a short amount of time, that had Verona not been directly in the path between Sandigliano and Venice, I never would’ve planned a detour to see it. That would’ve been a terrible shame, because it turned out to be a fantastic place, where I can easily see spending several days instead of just several hours.

As soon as we walked through this gate, I was enchanted.

We circled around the Verona Arena, built 50 years ahead of the Roman Colosseum in 30 AD.

Feeling hungry, but eager to keep exploring, we stopped to grab a slice of pizza, and my life was forever changed by discovering that the Italians have pizza topped with pasta. Obviously, I had to have it. And it did not disappoint.

With fresh carb-energy to burn, we started checking off my Verona “to see” list while admiring every building that we passed along the way. Some of the primary tourist attractions in Verona are its churches. This should’ve been enough to clue me in to how much I’d love it!

First up was the Chiesa di San Fermo Maggiore:

The sidewalks got much more crowded when we approached the #1 tourist attraction in the city. Can you guess what it is?

Got it yet?

How about now? Nice BALCONY, right?

Yes, yes, it’s the Casa di Giulietta, for all of the Shakespearean doomed-romance fanatics. But you simply can’t go to Verona for the first time and pass it by.

On the topic of things you HAVE to do here…

We joined in with the throngs of people accosting this statue of Juliet, said to bring true love to those who touch her right breast. Hey – we didn’t make the rules.

Having done our due diligence, we continued along to the piazza adjacent to the medieval Torre dei Lamberti and took the lift up before climbing the stairs even higher to get a bird’s eye view of Verona.

Next up was a stop for gelato, which became a daily occurrence through the remainder of our trip. The gelato is not pictured here, because this beautifully painted wall across from the gelato shop is much cooler to see.

We polished off our cones as we arrived at the next church, Santa Anastasia, which is easily in my top 5 of all the (many, many!) spectacular churches I visited in Italy. It was so colorful!

Verona’s Duomo, just a short walk further, didn’t capture me as much following right after Santa Anastasia, but it was prettier from the outside.

Did I mention how much I love these old, charming buildings that are EVERYWHERE YOU LOOK in Italy?

We followed the winding streets toward the water and crossed over the Ponte Pietra toward the Roman Theater.

From the other side, I captured my favorite picture from our day in Verona:

Then we proceeded to tour the Roman Theater, climbing many steep stairs on our way to a lovely view from the top.

After that, I was fairly certain I couldn’t take another step, but there was one more church on my list, and I would’ve regretted missing it, so I had to press on!

The Romanesque Basilica di San Zeno Maggiore is not only one of the oldest churches in Verona, but one of the oldest in Northern Italy.

There was so much to see in San Zeno – the ceiling, the statues, the artwork – but its spectacular bronze doors were astounding.

It had a lovely courtyard as well.

Heading back to the car, we passed the Castelvecchio Museum and many more beautiful buildings decked out in bright colors.

I took this picture out of sheer delight at what’s written on the back of the train. Can you read it?

Their spelling is more fun than our “choo choo,” don’t you agree?

We left Verona properly exhausted once again (though not so much that we couldn’t retrace our steps three blocks to find out where the person walking by had gotten cheese fries), and then it was on to Venice.

Jet lag still had a serious hold on me and Tracey, the effects of which were most apparent every time we were in the car for more than 5 minutes, at which point we’d both doze off. By the time we arrived at our B&B, we opted to have dinner and go to bed so that we could get an early start in Venice the next morning.

Rather than stay in Venice, precisely, we went the (much) cheaper route and stayed on the mainland a 10-minute bus ride from Venice, so that we could park the car for free and not have to drag our bags onto a boat to get to our hotel. It worked out really nicely.

Tracey and I left Grace and Pino to sleep in and have a leisurely breakfast before catching up with us in Venice. Pino gave me his phone so that we’d have a way to get in touch. Plus, I gave them a copy of the itinerary!

We caught the bus over to the Piazzale Roma, which is the furthest any non-boat traffic can go in Venice, and then we found the landing for the slow boat (called the Vaporetto, their version of public transportation) down the canal so that we could take our time gawking.

Probably owing to the time of day, we rode with mostly commuters, and therefore were able to snag two seats on the front of the boat. “Giddy” cannot even begin to describe my state as we began moving through the canal. There’s nothing like it.

We were in such a state of bliss that we didn’t even notice that our boat had stopped at the Rialto Bridge and wasn’t going any further – presumably some alteration to the schedule related to rush hour. A nice Italian man who was on the front of the boat with us tried to clue the hapless tourists in to this fact by saying, “Goodbye, goodbye” and waving at us, only to have us cheerfully waving “Bye!” back to him. He tried a new word, “Finish,” which owing to the pronunciation, we still didn’t grasp, but finally realized he was trying to convey something beyond, “Farewell, fair tourists,” and looked around to see that everyone else had gotten off the boat. Then we laughed and laughed at how oblivious we were as we got off the boat and immediately caught another.

Whenever I need to recall how blissfully happy we were “meeting” Venice, I can look back at this picture.

I think I took a picture of every building that we passed, but I was blown away by this church. The sheer size of it, not to mention the beauty, and right there on the water.

We disembarked near St. Mark’s Square, which is the busiest tourist area of Venice. The “streets” are widest here to accommodate the hustle and bustle. We arrived early enough to get ahead of the crowds visiting Doge’s Palace.

The most famous part of the Doge’s Palace tour is the passageway from the palace into the dungeons across the “Bridge of Sighs,” so named for the sighs of prisoners as they caught their last glimpse of Venice before passing over.

The courtyard of Doge’s Palace also features a view of the side of St. Mark’s Basilica.

And imitable statues.

St. Mark’s hadn’t opened yet in the early morning, so we just glanced at it and planned to return the next day to see inside.

St. Mark’s Square also boasts another primary tourist attraction, the Campanile (Bell Tower), but we skipped it in favor of the one at San Giorgio. More on that later, but here’s a look at St. Mark’s Campanile.

Our next laughing fit came along the canal, as one of the gondoliers took a hard look at Tracey, and she quipped, “I think he likes my shirt.” I cracked up every time we saw a gondolier ALL DAY.

We continued our walk, crossing over what one travel blogger called the “Bridge of Tourists Looking at the Bridge of Sighs,” so we joined the fun in looking at the outside of the bridge we’d looked out from not long before.

I was keeping a lookout for a cross street, headed to find another church (surprise, surprise), and it’s a good thing I was watching carefully, because here’s the street:

Once you passed through the dark entryway, you emerged on the other side to this:

We passed by the police station…

…and found San Zaccaria.

Grace and Pino joined us just in time to hop on a boat across the canal from St. Mark’s to visit the Chiesa di San Giorgio Maggiore.

Being careful to avoid going up on the hour when the loud bells would probably knock us down, we took the lift up to take in the view from atop San Giorgio.

Then it was back down the canal again (any excuse to ride the boat, really) to see another palace, the Ca’ Rezzonico, which I found much prettier than Doge’s Palace (albeit without the particular claim to fame of the can’t-miss Bridge of Sighs).

I was most taken with this intricate glass chandelier, which was made in Murano – one of the islands of Venice.

Ca’ Rezzonico also featured a small but cute courtyard area.

Inspired by the chandelier and being ahead of schedule, we decided there was time in our afternoon to tour both Murano and Burano, which meant a long boat trip, so I got comfortable.

We were ravenous when we arrived, so we began by having a delightful lunch in the garden of the Antica Trattoria.

The outdoor seating was much more popular, but as we left, I got a kick out of how the water seemed to be right outside the restaurant’s door. It practically was, of course, but the novelty hadn’t worn off for me.

We weren’t enthused by the glass museum, but found the Chiesa dei Santi Maria e Donato, a church (!!!) with beautiful mosaic tile floors.

Having arrived from Venice (proper) on one vaporetto line, we needed to depart to Burano on a different line, which could only be caught from the other side of the island. Fortunately, a good thing to do on Murano is take a stroll.

In Burano, another of Venice’s islands, the story goes that the fishermen painted their houses bright colors so that they could easily find them when they returned home at the end of the day. Whether this is true or not, all of Burano is decked out in an array of colors, and it’s even more delightful than it sounds.

I mean, come on! It’s perfect.

While Murano is known for its glass, Burano is known for its lace, which is for sale everywhere you look. One of the few souvenirs from my trip is a scarf I bought in Burano – a generic, cheap scarf, but embellished with Burano lace. You could buy items made entirely of hand sewn lace in Burano, but the price would leave you gasping for breath. A little taste of it was enough to suit me.

We even caught a glimpse of some locals, sitting and chatting while they sewed – under the laundry lines, of course!

While much less known than its comrade in Pisa, Burano has its own leaning tower – a church bell tower. The pictures don’t show off the lean very well, but it was obvious in person.

While it would be easy to walk the entirety of Burano in a few hours, I think I could’ve spent days there. Perhaps longer, since all of us took part in a game of imaginary house shopping as we walked around. “I could live there, and you could live there!” “Oh, or that one – love that one!”

We eventually hopped a boat back toward Venice just before the sun started to set, and once again transferred boats at the “faro” (lighthouse) on Murano.

I spent most of the return to Venice hanging over the side of the boat taking pictures of the magnificent sky.

We rode around the “backside” of Venice and passed by San Pietro di Castello.

And of course I seized the opportunity to take more photos of the buildings along the canal as night settled in.

Goodnight, Venice!

Knowing we were leaving for Florence the next afternoon, we got to bed early so that we could maximize the remainder of our time in Venice.

The next morning, we caught the bus in the dark and rode the boat down the canal as the sun rose. The cloud cover was thick, but the sky was still beautiful.

As we reached St. Mark’s, the clouds had begun to sweep away, framing the San Giorgio bell tower perfectly.

Then we were back in St. Mark’s Square, silent in the early morning, with Doge’s Palace, the Campanile, the stately church…. And the pigeons.

From there, we wandered aimlessly, choosing directions, bridges, and alleys as we came to them, keeping an eye out for a café to stop in for a cup of tea and a croissant, discovering treasures as we walked.

In seemingly no time, we were beside the water again, having crossed from one side to the other. There we found our café by the Rialto Bridge and watched people (and more pigeons) go by.

It was nearing time for St. Mark’s to open, so of course we opted to take the long, slow way back there via the water.

After touring the church, Tracey went into one of the museums in search of a bathroom, and I sat down on the steps to admire the square.

Soon, I became the admired instead of the admirer, but they were too late to get any of my granola bar.

Next, it was finally time to go see inside the grand church on the canal, Santa Maria della Salute. The inside hardly stood a chance of measuring up with my love affair with the architecture outside, but it was a beautiful church nonetheless.

I waited (and held Tracey hostage) for an exceptionally long time waiting to take this picture with no tourists in audacious colors walking through it. I can almost guarantee that there are people hidden behind each of these columns.

The church has its own vaporetto stop, so we floated along again toward the Cannaregio neighborhood, where we opted for more aimless wandering, enjoying the sights as they came, and reading all the restaurant menus!

We ended up stumbling upon one of the churches I had noted on my itinerary as a possible stop, but we were a few minutes past its closing time. This is what happens when you fly by the seat of your pants, people! HA! It was OK, though. We were content with our wandering.

We did find lunch, though. Whaddaya know… pasta!

With full stomachs and a bit more time left, I suggested some more wandering – wandering with a purpose toward another church I wanted to see. It was a worthwhile walk.

With another gelato stop in the books, we got on our last boat in Venice – the one headed back toward the buses. It was the one moment in the trip that I felt like I was leaving a place before I’d gotten my fill.

Venice, we’ll see each other again.

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