A Ladies-Only Roadtrip
“La sapienza è figliola dell’esperienza.” (Wisdom is the daughter of experience.)Leonardo Da Vinci
‘Twas a hectic day in May. Things weren’t going according to plan, and we were scrambling to be ready for this much-anticipated road trip. All the details were in place, but for some reason it was an especially scatterbrained kind of day and everything was taking longer than we expected. We finally nailed down all the details so everything was in place for two moms-of-three to take off on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure week to Italy! Until the moment of take-off, I was in high-torque stress mode. It’s a constant balancing act for a mother to accept help and feel worthy of taking a break. The mom-guilt and sense of responsibility [especially when we are away] is perpetual, even when we remind ourselves “we deserve this!”
This trip, however, was different. Perhaps for the first time since I became a mother I was able to really let go, trust, be present, and fully and thoroughly enjoy the moment. I’m sure it was in good part thanks to the company (Hayley and I dissected this topic at length) but also I had an awareness of the fleeting preciousness of this time and made a conscious commitment to BE HERE NOW. And so, despite a messy prologue, the voyage’s main attraction presented itself with the catharsis of a tidal wave returning to the sea. Almost immediately after leaving Pápa we both remarked on how much lighter we felt! I have been away from my babies before, and so had Hayley…but never for this long, and never just for FUN! This was a gift we were receiving with wide open and thankful arms. Italy, here we come!
Our first stop on our tour-d’Italy was Venice, the city of water. It has also been known as the city of bridges, city of canals, and the floating city. Venice is made up of 118 little islands separated by canals and connected by over 400 bridges. We were excited to see this man-made wonder for ourselves! The drive to Venice took around 7 hours, and it was very easy and fairly cheap to park and take transport (bus then water taxi) into the city. We knew we only had a small window of time before the beautiful blue skies turned ominous so we checked into our hotel and headed right back out to snag a ride in a gondola!
Gondola rides cost around 80 euro for 25-30 minutes, or more depending on if there are private musicians on board and how long of a ride you want. Its a classic, must-do experience and can of course be cheaper by sharing the ride! Its amazing to watch them work their magic around the narrow canals, coming within inches – or hairs! – of the walls. They duck under bridges and as our gondolier Franco did, sometimes even race with other boats! They may give you a few behind-the-scenes tips (like where to eat dinner) and tell you a story or two. We loved the experience; it was every bit as charming as we had imagined!
After our gondola ride we went for a little walk around to find dinner. We noticed a place right along the canal that looked good, so we snagged a table before it got too busy. Ristorante da Raffaele had lovely canal-side tables as well as a beautiful dining room. The staff was attentive and friendly and the menu was decent. It was probably a bit overpriced (welcome to Venice) but it was a welcome yummy meal considering all we’d eaten until that point was road snacks!
After dinner we walked around window shopping and dodging the rain. We noticed that Venice has an abundance of three things: hotels, restaurants and shops. After talking with some people, we learned that this is one of the few major cities on Earth that exists solely for tourism. Its true – Venice was once a bustling center of commerce and art in the Middle Ages and Renaissance – but now the economy runs exclusively on tourism. This includes visitors like us, but also people coming for festivals, Carnival, and various art, fashion and musical productions.
When we asked our gondolier and people in shops and hotel where “local” people eat and play, they laughed. “What local people? There are no more Venetians. Only tourists. Venice is for tourists now.” We were lucky that there wasn’t an overflow of tourists when we were there – partly due to the weather and partly due to a low number of cruise ships on the mainland.
Tourists walked around with waterproof shoe covers and ponchos they picked up from street vendors, but we came prepared…our rain coats got good use! Apparently Venice is flooding more frequently and more severely in the last few years, so sales of disposable “floodwear” gear are booming! I can’t imagine being there in a flood. Nope, nope, nope.
We noticed that the most popular items being sold were decorative Venetian masks of all shapes and sizes, all variations of Murano glass keepsakes, items made of Italian leather, a “Limoncello” liqueur or Bellini, Burano lace, and fancy, fancy clothes! We also found gelato around every other corner, and you couldn’t go far without seeing gondoliers!
My favorite store had to be Nino’s and Friends, where we lingered during a downpour and ended up trying just about everything in their store! The free samples were plentiful and all of them were delicious. If I had an unlimited souvenir budget we probably would’ve blown through it there – as their culinary delights didn’t come cheap! Amazing sauces, sweets, chocolates, oils, and indulgent delicacies. I stocked up on some quality balsamic vinegar and the BEST dark chocolate covered espresso beans I’ve ever had. They’re already long gone…but I would eat them every single day if I had them!
The longer we walked the winding, narrow streets of Venice, the more dizzying it became. It felt like a maze, and we often would stop to take a photo and laugh saying, “it feels like we were just here!” Sometimes we were retracing our steps – and other times it just appeared similar. It was impossible for us to walk the streets and see the beautiful, decaying buildings without picturing life here hundreds of years ago and sensing the “ghosts” of Venice past. It left us with a lingering, haunting feeling. Our little boutique hotel certainly had that “rich in history” feel, with its tapestry walls, squeaky, steep staircase and original wooden-shuttered windows. It would’ve made a great setting for a murder mystery dinner!
The next day it was pouring. All day long. After breakfast at our hotel we put on our wet gear and vowed to not let that stop us! Varying conditions of “wet” meant we had to be creative. We weren’t able to view the city atop the Fondaco dei Tedeschi (but we went up there and highly recommend it! Views *would* be beautiful and FREE!) adjacent to the Rialto Bridge, so instead we sat in the atrium cafe and had tea and people watched. We didn’t have great luck strolling the wet streets so we ducked into Osterias and enjoyed glass after glass of Prosecco and had a progressive lunch of cicchetti. Cicchetti, or “small snacks” are a most amazing, delicious and affordable lunch option in Venice. They’re basically an open-faced sandwich. You can count on food in Venice to be quite expensive ($5 for a little coffee!) so at around $1.50 per piece, cicchetti is a welcome options with limitless variations! And $2 wine? Yes please! We fell in love with two places in particular, and had great luck finding seating in the cozy little establishments. Overall it was a great day in spite of the rain! We walked over six splashy miles, found some terrific souvenirs, and didn’t have a care in the world (except trying to stay dry).
We saw all kinds of amazing architecture, statues, art art installations. Apparently we just missed Banksy by about 10 days! Below is a sampling of goodies from shops (including cannoli and meringues), Libreria Acqua Alta (a famous book store known for putting its books in boats to avoid damage during frequent flooding), some hilarious artwork, beautiful lion-themed statues (lions are all the rage in Venice), poignant graffiti and soul-crushing street art.
Eventually the rain let up just enough for us to enjoy St. Mark’s Square in proper lighting. We brought our loot back to our hotel and then ended the day with a dinner. It started off delightful enough, with drinks on a cozy patio in giant red velvet chairs. Then…it was all downhill from there. The service was atrocious – we were deliberately overlooked and treated borderline rudely (maybe because we each only ordered one drink and a main course? Is that a faux-pas?), the food was average at best and the price tag was gag worthy. I can’t say I recommend Taverna La Fenice… although we certainly had a good laugh about it all!
The next morning was overcast. We got up early, jumped on the water taxi (thank God for Hayley because I was wandering around taking it all in and paying zero attention to directions all day) and headed straight to Bologna!
It only took about 90 minutes to get to Bologna from where we parked on the mainland just outside of Venice. The drive was dreary, but we noticed it was letting up some by the time we arrived. We checked into our hotel (a big improvement in space compared to Venice!) and headed into town. It was all on this one day that we almost took the wrong water taxi, realized our bus didn’t stop where we expected it to and had to figure out how to get back to our car, started walking into town and realized 20 minutes later we were heading straight out of town and ended up taking the bus instead, and we walked a total of 15km of porticos! Our feet were hurting something fierce by the end of it all but our bellies were happy and there were many unforgettable moments of laughter to highlight the day!
The bus took us through one of the impressive city gates, many of which are still intact from the Middle Ages. Bologna is known as the city of porticos, with over 45km of covered walkways throughout the city. It is also one of the few remaining large walled cities in the world. It is home to the oldest university in the world, University of Bologna, established in the year 1088. It also used to have 180 defensive towers but today only around 20 remain. We saw the two most famous towers “Due Torri,” constructed in the early 1100’s. One of which we climbed, and the other is leaning dramatically! It is a spiraling 498 steps to the top of Asinelli Tower, the taller of the two, at 97m or 318 feet high. Its height and location gives it the most breathtaking panoramic views of the city of Bologna!
Our bus exit was in Piazza Magiorre, and we were happy to be here with healthy appetites. Bologna is a foodie city indeed, and from the piazza we could look down narrow city streets filled with eateries and markets. Right away we noticed the acclaimed vaulted porticos, but also took note of the medieval looking buildings. They had a decisive Gothic style, but their construction felt unique to this city. The walled fortress design extended throughout the city in a uniform way – each building having the familiar pointed arch windows, various battlements, and simple, symmetrical footprint. Even the Basilica di San Petronio – the centerpiece of the city – is the only church of its kind I have ever seen. The interior was classic Gothic style, but the exterior was fortified almost the same way the surrounding buildings were! There were technically buttresses on the cathedral but they were unlike any other.
Before delving too much into sightseeing, we decided on food and drink. We walked down Via Pescherie Vecchie and found a great place to grab a light lunch – Zerocinquantino. They had a delicious assortment of “Tigelle” sandwiches, made from little round breads exclusive to the Modena region of Italy. We shared half of them on the menu, and of course, wine! Despite the overcast skies, it was a great day for people watching. Bologna was less touristy than Venice; we felt like we were mixed right in with the hustle and bustle of everyday Bologna life! After we ate lunch, we bought tickets online to climb up the tower. (You can’t buy tickets at the tower, so online is the easiest way to secure a spot.) Then we grabbed some ice cream, walked around a bit, and grabbed Prosecco in a little bar…just before our time slot arrived to ascend Torre degli Asinelli! After the rewarding climb, we descended and walked around the Piazza Maggiore with wiggly legs.
Back down on the ground, we stretched our legs and explored some more. We walked through “Eataly” which is a very popular spot for tourists to shop and dine. We made our way to the Piazza Maggiore and decided to tour the Basilica. We learned so much about its fascinating history! Its construction began in 1390 but the front facade of the building is still unfinished. It has an unmistakable appearance, and was well guarded by Italian police. We weren’t sure why at the time, but it’s possible they were surrounding the Basilica due to thwarted terrorist attacks in 2002 and 2006.
Inside the Basilica I immediately noticed the floor. The marble mosaic tile is stunning – but something else stood out. There was a line resembling a meridian that extended at a strange angle along the left aisle. We learned that the line was designed and installed by Giovanni Domenico Cassini, who taught astronomy at Bologna University in 1655. The line he created is 219 feet long and is used as an astronomical instrument to make accurate measurements based on sunlight coming through a tiny 1 inch hole 88 feet high in the vaulted ceiling. The sun projects an elliptical image that falls exactly on the meridian line at noon every day (when it’s not cloudy), and from the varying positions, Cassini and his students were able to calculate equinoxes, solstices, the duration of the tropical year and much more. Apparently it was the first experimental verification of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. Fascinating. (Thanks, google!) We were lucky to be able to listen to an organ demonstration and wander around many of the 22 side chapels.
After lingering in the Basilica we decided to take the last San Luca express road train up to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca. The cathedral is situated high on a hill overlooking Bologna and has beautiful views.
After exploring the cathedral and surrounding hilltop, and snagging another Prosecco at Vita a San Luca, we decided to brave the longest portico in the world and walk back to town. Our dinner reservation was around 4 miles from the top of the hill so it didn’t seem like that much of a stretch, but it took longer than we expected, and turned into a brisk and damp downhill hustle for an hour and a half to make it to our dinner reservations on time! We were also walking in the wrong direction – because apparently there was a soccer match that night and everyone was heading to the stadium!
Little did we know that after 9 swift miles of walking, we were in for the most memorable meal of our entire week away! Broccaindosso is a cozy, casual establishment on the East side of the city, with only about 8 tables for guests. The waitstaff is warm and friendly and served us hearty helpings of their classic dishes. We shared the mixed starters, three different pasta dishes and a delightful mix of traditional Italian desserts! As delicious as the main meal was, the piece de resistance was the dessert experience. After the meal and drinks we were pretty full, but we figured we should try their “selection of sweets” and so, to be polite, we splurged.
What took place can only be described as hilarity. The waiter began bringing entire platters of treats out to us one by one, slapping them down on our table. The first delivery was brownies with a huge vat of vanilla pudding. The amount of food just in that first platter and bowl was enough for the entire restaurant and there was no way we could have eaten it all. We got such a kick out of it and couldn’t wait to see what was next! Little did we know that was only the beginning…
The servers came and took what was left of the brownies and vanilla pudding and proceeded to bring out an equally large vat of chocolate pudding and a huge family sized platter of flan! By then we had a hunch this wasn’t it – there were probably a couple more varieties of desserts coming – so we took small servings and did our best to tackle the first four things.
After that came a casserole dish full of tiramisu, AND an entire cake-like tart. We couldn’t keep up, and by the end of it we were laughing so hard we could barely chew…we couldn’t believe there could possibly be anything else, when they cleared away the vats of pudding and plates and brought out a huge platter FULL of little sugar-dusted puff pastries and a huge bowl of chocolate sauce! Everyone was staring at us and we were totally boggled by the whole experience! After each dessert course we could see they were returning the uneaten food to the refrigerator to serve later – something that we never imagined could or would ever happen! Only in Italy I guess!
I’m glad we weren’t the only ones laughing. The waiters caught us getting a kick out of all of this and I noticed a little grin. I think they were putting on a show for us – we certainly wouldn’t have been surprised if a hidden camera popped out at some point! We were totally spent by the time the last dessert was served and I’m quite certain if we’d known there was so much dessert in the “tasting” (for only 15 euro, mind you) we certainly would’ve eaten a bit less of the main meals! I feel bad we left so much on our plates!
Needless to say the place was a delight. We highly recommend it and can’t believe the bill was only 89 euro! Appetizers, main courses, wine and ALL that dessert…it could easily have been three times that much! We were tired but walking home so satisfied and totally tickled by the whole day!
We awoke to a beautiful day and it just kept getting better. The further west we drove, the brighter it got! By the time we got to Levanto we were ready to get some sunshine. With almost 10 miles walked the day before, we were just a bit weary but the gorgeous terrain and views were like fuel for the soul!
We made sure to snag a pass for the train that had unlimited trips and included the ability to hike the Sentiero trail. Part of the trail is closed right now due to washouts on the path. As the trails are steep and originally used for goats, they are working to restore them and prepare them for the next generation of Cinque Terre hikers!
We checked into our hotel and then hopped on the train in Levanto down to Monterosso al Mare where we grabbed a snack (mmm focaccia!) and found the Sentiero hiking trail. From there we hiked (it took over 2 hours) to Vernazza. We got our first view of the classic colorful buildings stacked along the coast and it was every bit as amazing as we had hoped! That hike was intense…we were quite surprised by some of the people who we met up with mid-trail. A word of caution – bring water, wear proper clothing, and make sure you can handle lots of elevation hiking! It was a blast, but I could tell some people were hurting after tackling such an endeavor.
In Vernazza we jumped back on the train and went down to Riomaggiore. There we walked around, peeked at Riomaggiore Beach, and then walked back up the narrow streets to grab wine, bruschetta and another focaccia snack at Vertical Lounge Bar! I would say the most delicious focaccia we had the whole trip was at Vertical Lounge Bar, but really any focaccia you order is delicious when it’s fresh! What a treat – after that long hike to sit on a patio, people watch and enjoy amazing Italian cuisine!
And oh, the fun wasn’t over yet…from Riomaggiore we took the train again to Manarola! Manarola is the most recognized of the Cinque Terre towns. Its iconic image is depicted on many-a-paraphernalia. We were so excited to go straight to Nessun Dorma, a little eatery on the side of the hill looking back at the Manarola Marina. It was absolutely magical – we got a seat right away and lingered there for hours, watching the changing skies all the way until sunset!
We were so lucky…it didn’t rain on us all day so we were able to enjoy the full brightness of the colorful Cinque Terre towns. We saw four of five of them (only missing Corniglia) and really felt like we were able to get a great overview of the area in just one day! Only as we were settled in late into our dinner did it start to sprinkle on us and by then we didn’t care! We were nestled under an umbrella with seagulls coming to say hello, people watching selfie-takers down below and placing bets on which parcels of land we were able to see form high up on our Nessun Dorma cliff. We just kept ordering food and drinks until we got tired and the sun set – it was an absolutely magical day!
The next day was another travel day. We were lucky to wake up to blue skies and warm weather. We were excited to hit the road and make it all the way up to Sirmione on Lake Garda.
We did a spot of shopping in the Levanto marketplace morning before cruising out of town with the top down. We were all fueled up with pastries, cappuccinos, sandwiches for the road, and some amazing fruit from the market! I am confident saying that the clementine I ate was the most delicious clementine I’d ever had in my life. It was so juicy and flavorful, I can still taste it!
The market reminded me a bit of the ones in Hungary I have been to. Street vendors had set up shop along the roads with loads of clothing, bags, trinkets, souvenirs, flowers and fresh produce. The prices were fairly reasonable for Italy, and with any luck you could score a really cute outfit like Hayley did! The only thing about a market is you must have cash. It was a fairly busy day in Levanto, which surprised me as it was mid week. We were excited to finally take a ride with nothing above us but blue sky!
The funniest thing happened on our drive to Sirmione on Lake Garda. We started seeing some reeeally nice cars pass us on the highway. At one point I screeched with delight when an honest to goodness Bugatti passed us, followed by two Lamborghinis! We figured there must be something going on, and soon we would find out! The time passed quickly…we listened to riveting podcasts and talked about 20+ topics on our discussion list!
As we arrived in Sirmione, we noticed signs everywhere for “Mille Miglia.” We had no idea what this meant, but soon we realized it was a parade – or race of some sort – involving all kinds of super flashy and old fancy vehicles. Strangely enough, the hotel we booked was on the tip of the peninsula, so in order to get there we needed special permission to cross over police boundaries that had been set up just for that day for the race! Apparently it was that day only when all cars in the race were to arrive in Sirmione (sometimes nearby Brescia) on their trek north from Rome. The round trip race is 1,000 miles – which is what Mille Miglia means – and is a sight to behold! People were gathered along the streets as if it were a grand parade, and for about 1 mile, we were part of the fun!
We checked into our hotel and rested for a moment, figuring out our game plan for the evening. We went out for a little walk to see the lake and then went down to join the fun at the races. We walked along the race route and finally settled in for aperitifs and dinner at Villa Pioppi Hotel. It was a lovely evening filled with laughter, birds stealing our food, German racegoers picking our brains, and a plate of seafood with more eyeballs than we’d ever seen before!
At this point in the tour d’Italia we were starting to feel a little bit tired, and suddenly our time felt fleeting like we didn’t *quite* have enough hours to properly absorb each place we were in. Still, we were committed to being present and making the most of it. On the way to Slovenia – where we planned to meet up with the hubby and the kids – we planned to stop into Verona. We had heard it was a beautiful place, where “Romeo & Juliet” was set! Not only that, but Verona has one of the bet preserved Roman amphitheaters, built in 30 AD. The Verona Arena is the third largest in Italy and is still used today for festivals, theater and shows. In general we were blown away by how busy and bustling a city it was, and how impossible it was to find parking! We both agreed it was a place we’d come back in a heartbeat – to catch a show, enjoy the food scene and explore more!
Walking the streets charmed us immediately. The bridges over the river were stunning and the little shops and piazzas were pristine! Besides the Arena, the most popular area tourists flock to (that we happened upon by accident) was the “Casa di Giulietta” or Juliet’s house. You can walk into a small courtyard and look up at Juliet’s “balcony” (which, in reality, is all just for fun) and people have painted the walls with love notes and grafitti for good luck. Apparently there is also a “Casa di Romeo” but we didn’t get to see that on this trip. We were on a mission – we had to make it to Slovenia for our reservations at Hiša Franko that evening! The cherry on top of a marvelous girls-trip!
On the way out of Verona we passed a town called Soave, where we noticed an impressive castle surrounded by vineyards and a sweet little town. “Let’s get closer!” we both said, and realized there was nothing holding us back. Off the route we went… because we could! I think that stop epitomized the feeling of the entire trip. We did it! We were totally free of responsibilities and answering to anyone but ourselves. We had some ideas of what we wanted to do of course, but we weren’t set on any agenda, and we did things just because we could. It was a good reminder that we all need that kind of independence every once in a while, especially those deep in the throes of parenthood! We drove on, feeling incredibly lucky and grateful, knowing this is the kind of trip that doesn’t come around very often (if ever again) and our hearts were happy for having treasured it together!
What a vacation to remember! Follow along with the remainder of the trip here. A huge thank you to Hayley for all of the research, positive attitude and good humor, plus her commitment to spontaneity in spite of our mutual aptitude for planning. It satisfied in so many ways…but a wanderlust at heart, we’re always thirsty for more! Let’s do it again!