La Dolce Vita: Three Blissful Weeks in Italy

La Dolce Vita: Three Blissful Weeks in Italy

The seductive scent of a pizza bubbling in a woodfire oven. The carnal roar of a cranberry red Ferrari reverberating through ancient cobblestone streets. Impossibly adorable grandmothers hanging the day’s laundry in the early morning sun. The flavorful explosions of fresh lemons, olives, figs – plucked straight from their trees. Infinite expositions of impeccably sculpted marble, breathtaking renaissance masterpieces, expansive frescos defying minds and gravity alike. The unmistakable smell of espresso beckoning sleepers to rise. Centuries of palpable history echoing through time. Endless bounties of cheese, wine, pasta, and other epicurean delights. The passionate, rollercoaster inflection of the native tongue – incomplete, of course, without even greater enthusiasm from the speaker’s hands.

If there’s a country on this gorgeous earth more evocative, more romanticized, more alluring, more sexy than Italy… you know what, forget it – there’s simply no such place. Italia has always commanded over me an impossibly powerful gravitational pull – to the extent that I worried whether it might not live up to my herculean expectations. This is, after all, one of the most touristed nations on the planet – would there be any authenticity waiting for my arrival? Would I find nothing to surprise me, having felt like I’d been here a million and a half times, compliments of popular culture?

If you’ve been, you already know: my doubts were ridiculous. As it turns out, Italy is everything it’s promised to be. This country is the living incarnation of passion, of tradition, of sex, of the insatiable human desire to feel alive. I didn’t hate it.

Rome: Echoes of a Beautiful Empire

My Italian adventure began, as so many do, in its illustrious capital city. The Eternal city, as it’s known, drips in cobblestone, in marble, in that effortless Italian brand of cool that always wears a crisp pressed suit and never removes its Ray Bans. Priceless masterpieces and opulent architectural paragons pervade every square inch of the city, inescapable reminders of one of humanity’s most dominant empires, bursting at the seams with thousands of years of history. The evening sun spills its fiery guts across narrow pastel alleyways adorned with ivy, lined with Alfa Romeos, and drenched in the most seductive smells you can fathom.

Still with me after Paris were Scott and Carla, and our priorities in Rome were clear: First and foremost, eat and drink in irresponsibly grotesque quantities – and the rest will follow. We got to work quickly. Whereas many destinations involve sightseeing punctuated by occasional meals, our Roman exploration entailed decadent meals, punctuated by occasional sightseeing. In fact, let’s just get the food out of the way so I can move on and tell you about the rest. If you’re reading this in advance of your lunch break… I am so sorry.

You’ll notice a lot of zucchini on these pies – it’s a lesser-known seasonal staple of Italian cuisine, and it’s delicious.

This is what Italian breakfast looks like – and it’s enjoyed, without exception, while standing at the counter of a bar. This is where Italians congregate for both their morning cappuccinos (never after 11 AM!) and for evening libations.

Pasta so incredibly fresh and flavorful that vacates just enough space on your mouth to let slip an involuntary “OHMYGOD” to accompany your involuntary ‘I’ll-have-what-she’s-having’ eye roll. Most notably, you see Caccio e pepe – one of my favorite dishes of all time, period. This traditional Roman dish is astonishingly simple and incredibly decadent: fresh pasta, pecorino cheese, black peppercorn. Voilà. The last one pictured was the late Anthony Bourdain’s favorite in all of Italy – so beloved, in fact, that he refused to disclose the restaurant where he devoured it. But of course, we found out. If you’re wondering why the bowl looks a bit odd, it’s because it is itself made of pecorino cheese. Yep. I know.

One restaurant even afforded us the incredible opportunity to watch Italian nonnas preparing our fresh pasta from scratch. Suck it, Olive Garden. 

Roman street food: Supplì al Telefono, rice croquettes with tomato sauce and mozzarella so named for the cheese’s amusing tendency to string heroically as you attempt in vain to sever it with your teeth. Also pictured is a new Roman invention, the trappizino: essentially a pizza-sandwich hybrid that evokes a gourmet Hot Pocket done right.

Granita di Espresso con Panna: basically a frozen espresso slush with whipped cream so fresh you can practically chew it.

And here’s a nice surprise. Traditionally a lover of beer and whiskey and not much else, Italy was the catalyst for quite a dramatic change-of-heart for me: it made of me a wine drinker. Ubiquitous and delicious, Italian wine is a fine example of the classic libation – and with pitchers often equally or less expensive than water, how could I not delve into this world? (Spoiler alert: having spent a few months in Italy and Spain, I’m now a bonafide wine lover – having gone well beyond dipping my toes in the water). I still enjoyed more than a few negronis as well, though.

Whew – we made it! The food torture is over for now. There’s plenty more later though, so don’t get too comfortable. Culinary delights aside, Rome was an absolute masterpiece of a traveler’s city. Despite it’s seemingly endless array of tourist attractions, ruins, and museums, the greatest joy to be found in Rome comes from simply wandering its gorgeous streets. We were particularly smitten with the phenomenally beautiful Trastavere neighborhood, which we called home during our stay. When you think Italy, this is probably what you imagine. Just look at this place! 

But of course, we did our share of sightseeing as well. We visited the breathtaking Uffizi Gallery, positively dripping quite literally from floor to ceiling with masterpieces.

We threw our three coins into the famous Trevi Fountain, a practice said to guarantee a return to Rome, and perhaps too new love. To me, one of those is reasonably likely, but the other is an absolute lock – I’ll let you work out which is which.

You can’t go to Rome and not visit the Colosseum. I’m not going to tell you about it, because you already know exactly what it is.

Similarly mandated is a stop by Vatican City – technically the world’s smallest country at 0.44 km², itself a sovereign state. Like the mosques of Istanbul, the grandiose nature of this place was equally inspiring and nauseating – a testament both to the power of human effort and the commanding influence of doctrine and dogma.

I was really excited for one of our more off-the-beaten-path destinations: Centrale Montemartini, a showcase of gorgeous statues and busts juxtaposed brilliantly against the industrial backdrop of a former electrical production facility. Cool, huh?

We had the good fortune of running into my buddy Chase on the Fourth of July, a South Georgia-born American living in Colorado who I improbably met in Indonesia earlier this year – and here we were again. The world is small!

More scenes from around town: unparalleled eye candy.

As usual, time flew by – and long before I was ready to say goodbye to my dear friend and sister, I had to do it anyway. Carla and Scott were headed back to the States as our time in Rome drew to a close. It was such a joy to travel (and eat!) with them – but there wasn’t much time to be sad. I had a whole lot more of Italy left to see.

Florence: Cradle of the Renaissance

Yes, my next stop was Firenze, the birthplace of the Renaissance that forever shaped the Europe we know today. The capital of Italy’s idyllic Tuscany region, this city is more saturated with museums and art than practically anywhere else in the world. Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dante, and the list goes on – Florentines are some of history’s most illustrious and influential artists and thinkers. And beneath that veneer of art and culture lies an inescapably beautiful city.

When in Rome, you do as the Romans do – and when in Florence, you just go to a shitload of museums. Here are some highlights.

This contains a piece of ‘THE’ cross. Like, the Jesus one. Allegedly.

You’re not getting off the hook without a bit of food porn.

While public drinking fountains are scattered regularly all throughout Italy, the novelty of Florence’s public sparkling water fountain never ceased to delight me.

Sunsets here aren’t shabby, either.

That brings me to my biggest complaint about Florence, though – more than literally any other place I’ve visited this year, this city was absolutely suffocated with tourists. Yes, of course, it’s Italy in July – this has to be expected – but it was so much more evident here than anywhere else. When it’s difficult to move through the streets without tripping over forty six people thrusting selfie sticks in your face, a bit of the romanticism fades away. That last sunset photo? Here’s what I had to contend with to take it.

Hey, I get it, this is a great city, and with that come crowds – of which I was very much a part! I can’t rightly complain about it, but I can provide a gentle warning if you’re considering a trip here: visit in the shoulder season! I suspect it’ll be a much more pleasant experience.

Here’s some more B roll beauty for you to enjoy.

Seaside Paradise: Liguria's Idyllic Cinque Terre

As I made my way northward, I elected to stop for a few days in another tourist hotspot: Cinque Terre, actually a series of five towns perched precariously in the hillsides overlooking the most gorgeous turquoise Mediterranean waters of Italy’s Liguria region. These towns are famous not just for their beauty, but also for the hiking trails that connect them all together, providing for sensationally beautiful days of trekking amongst them, punctuated of course with ample eating and drinking. Renown for its world-famous pesto, fresh lemons, and beautiful seaside views, Liguria feels like another country entirely when compared to Lazio (wherein lies Rome) and the rustic Tuscany.

The place itself is special and intoxicating enough to delight even the most jaded traveler, but what truly made this leg of my trip unforgettable was my stay at 5 Terre Backpackers – to this day, an easy choice for my favorite hostel in the world (having stayed at more than 50 of them by now). Never mind my favorite hostel – this place is one of my favorite places in the world, and that’s in no small part due to the love and dedication of its owner and proprietor, my new friend Francesco. 

The experience here is absolutely magical. Nestled high above the Cinque Terre in the serenely quiet hills of Corvara, Francesco has created a place where guests are all family. It’s incredibly intimate, sleeping perhaps 20 guests.

Upon arrival by way of the free shuttle that Francesco provides to and from the towns themselves, he pours each guest a complimentary glass of wine as he shows them the grounds and explains what they’ll be having for dinner that night. That’s right – each night, all of the guests sit down at a big table together to share a family meal, lovingly prepared by Francesco himself using produce fresh from his own garden. And let me tell you, he’s not just a pretty face – this guy can cook!

The atmosphere is unbeatable – I really had to pinch myself. One of the great experiences of my life was sitting down to a freshly made Italian meal – from scratch – after an incredibly scenic day of hiking, while watching the sherbet sunset over the hills with a host of new friends, many of whom I became quite close with. Aside from Francesco himself, who is an absolute sweetheart of a guy – kind, helpful, humble, giving – there was a host of other great folks. Ashley and Bobbie are best friends from San Diego.

Adam is a hilarious – and slightly insane – base jumper from Montana. Matthew I was particularly jealous of. An incredibly affable New Yorker studying filmmaking, he was arriving for his first day at 5 Terre, where he’d be living and volunteering for the next 3 months. While I’m living out a dream this year, to be sure, he’s living another version of it that I myself would like to experience some day – laying down roots somewhere amazing for a while and letting that singular place shape him and become a part of him.

This incredible getaway was the driving force behind a lot of amazing new memories for me, and I’m so grateful to Francesco and to the new friends I made there for providing me with such an unforgettable experience. It says a lot when the accommodation itself can overshadow even an incredible place like this one. More sights from this wonderful part of the world:

Believe it or not, though, I still hadn’t made it to the part of Italy I was most excited to see… but that was next up!

Emilia Romagna: Slow Food, Fast Cars

When I look back on this incredible year decades from now, my time in Northern Italy’s Emilia Romagna region will be one of the most vivid and warm memories I have to draw on. This is the undisputed culinary capital of one of the world’s foremost food countries – and the birthplace of the illustrious likes of Ferrari, Lamborghini, Pagani, Maserati, and Ducati: artisan creators of the finest and fastest cars and motorcycles in the world. If you know me, you know these beautifully monstrous amalgamations of carbon fiber, leather, gasoline, and unbridled horsepower have haunted my dreams for years. A trip to this part of Italy, then, is a pilgrimage for me, both as a shameless zealot of food and of automobiles.

I’d be spending time in three cities: First Modena, the tiny pastel home to Enzo Ferrari, founder of the iconic brand, and Osteria Francescana: The #1-ranked restaurant in the world. Then in Maranello, synonymous with gearheads the world-round as the home and spiritual epicenter of Ferrari. Finally, I’d stop in Bologna, the defacto capital of the region and home to some of the world’s finest cuisine, not to mention a vibrant and buzzy student community, gorgeous architecture, and lively culture. Together, these elements to me represent the earthbound embodiment of heaven.

First, Modena:

While I was unable to secure the impossibly difficult and outrageously expensive reservation for Osteria Francescana, I did make a quick stop by to take a peek. 

Better still, I was able to get a reservation at Franceschetta 58, the more casual and far more reasonably-priced brainchild of the very same chef, Massimo Bottura – one of Italy’s heroes and one of the world’s most illustrious chefs. Check out this profile about this quintessentially Italian character:

If you’re interested – I implore you watch his episode of Chef’s Table (Season 1), available on Netflix – one of my favorite television shows of all time.

My meal at Franceschatta 58 was, predictably, a delight, and paired beautifully with glass after glass of lambrusco, the region’s famed sparkling red wine.

Also in Modena, I visited the Enzo Ferrari Museum – a beautiful homage to a man and his beloved machines in the very house he grew up in, adjacent to the very workshop in which he first began to create his masterpieces 

Also in Modena is Hombre farm, perhaps the most ‘me’ thing I’ve ever encountered in the world. Hombre is a producer of Parmigiano Reggiano, perhaps the world’s finest cheese – painstakingly created under the strict guidelines that have dictated Italian food culture for centuries.

That’s 8,000 wheels of parmigiano reggiano, valued at $900/ea. Feel free to do the math.

Touring the facility and watching cheesemakers at work was a joy enough, but Hombre happens to have another notable claim to fame: it’s home to one of the world’s foremost and most valuable collections of Maserati automobiles. The owner of the farm, Umberto Panini, happens to be just a bit of a car freak, as well – and the beauty in this on-site barn was every bit as overwhelming as that of their cheese storeroom.

Punching well above its minuscule weight, Modena is also the home of Pagani, creators of the most expensive, painstakingly hand-crafted, and utterly batshit crazy automobiles in the world. If you think Ferraris or Lamborghinis are costly or exotic, Pagani bests them in both regards by several orders of magnitude. My visit there was literally a dream come true: Not only did I get to visit their museum, but I was also given a tour of the factory floor, where I saw these multimillion dollar masterpieces created by hand.

Devastatingly, Pagani does not allow photos on the factory floor. Fortunately, however, they have allowed media access in the past – so here’s some coverage from SpeedHunters.com, who were allowed to capture images of the factory itself. Truly incredible stuff.

Maranello was again all about the prancing horse of Ferrari, and home to the main Ferrari museum, nestled alongside the very factory in which they’re made and the racetrack upon which they’re tested and benchmarked.

And finally, my beloved Bologna. Oh, Bologna… of all the places I visited in Italy, this is the one city where I can actually imagine myself living. Nicknamed ‘La Grassa’: ‘The fat one’, Bologna is the capital city of the Emilia Romagna. Despite all of its incredible food, culture, art, and energy, Bologna has somehow escaped the tourist hordes that prey upon the likes of Rome and Florence. It’s the home of Europe’s oldest university, and the youthful progressive energy is evident here. During the summer, there’s a giant piazza that screens nightly movies for thousands of locals. Gelato and pasta here are unbelievably delicious, and cheap. And the city itself is gorgeous. For some reason, I basically failed to take any photos here… but this beautiful little video love letter to the city makes my point better than I could have hoped to anyway.

Here again I made some great new friends like Ivy (Scotland) and Neus and her sister (Spain).

Bologna is also the home of Lamborghini, where Id’ again have the unprecedented opportunity to tour their factory floor. Same rules apply here as at Pagani, so again I’ll allow credentialed media to show you what I couldn’t capture.

Bologna is also where I experienced the single best tour – of any kind – that I’ve experienced in my entire life, and one of the greatest days of eating of my 30 years on this Earth, as well. The Italian Days Food Tour, led by the infinitely charismatic and hilarious Alessandro (who absolutely needs his own food show, and in such circumstances would be an overnight celebrity), was a 10-hour barrage of unparalleled and unceasing gluttony. We visited another Parmigiano Reggiano production facility, a prosciutto butcher and curing operation, and one of the foremost family-owned balsamic vinegar production operations in the world.

A note on balsamic: True balsamic vinegar is absolutely NOTHING like we have back home in the states, and is painstakingly produced with a bare minimum of 12 years of barrel aging. It’s a thick, sweet, delicious substance that Italians call ‘black gold’, and it’s priced to match. I sampled one tiny 100ml bottle aged more than 100 years and valued at more than 250 euros.

After touring these three facilities – each of which was the site of insane amounts of food thrust into our mouths – we were then treated to a 12-course lunch. I cannot emphasize enough that this day entailed a GROTESQUE amount of eating and drinking, to the extent that I’d cry mercy and cover my plate – upon which Alessandro would laugh, mock me, and literally pile more food on my arms with which I was obscuring my my place at the table. To say that the food and wine – both of which were world class – was unlimited would be an understatement. I literally fasted the entire next day. SO WORTH IT.

If you go to Italy, please visit Bologna and embark on a tour with Italian Days. It will likely be the best day of eating in your entire life.

Footnote: Venice

Buckle your seatbelts, folks… I’m not going to sugarcoat this. I spent one day in Venice, and that was more than enough. To be honest, I didn’t like it at all. In a country that absolutely boggled my mind with its beauty, its history, its food, its hospitality… Venice offered practically none of these. It is – in my opinion – a radically overpriced, overtouristed, Disney-fied emulation of Italy – utterly lacking in every way aside from being pretty to look at. The food is mediocre, the prices are sky-high, the local culture is virtually impossible to pick out from the teeming crowds of cruise ship tourists, and overall it just fell a bit flat to me. 

But you know what? I don’t care. This was the conclusion of three of the best weeks of my life, exploring a country that captured my heart, my stomach, and my dreams. Italy is a paradise, and frankly I barely scratched the surface there – there’s so much left for me to see. The south of Italy in particular – Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, Barri, Lecci, the Amalfi Coast – completely eluded me and give me an incredible future journey to look forward to. So I wasn’t about to let one dud of a city get me down. Instead, I spent a day wandering through Venice, snapped a few pictures, and beamed with joy – I’d just experienced a very special place.

I was gutted to say goodbye to Italy, honestly. But boy was I in for another treat: I was headed to the Iberian peninsula to explore Portugal and Spain. I was sure that nothing could hold a candle to my experience in Italy, but let me tell you… I was in for a surprise. Stay tuned!


2 thoughts on “La Dolce Vita: Three Blissful Weeks in Italy

  1. Hi Chris – I feel very passionate about Italy as well, although I have barely scratched the surface there. I do still dream about retiring there. I was very interested in your comments about Venice. My husband and I went there in 2007 for our first anniversary (as well as a few other cities) and we fell in love with it and pledged to come back for our 10th anniversary. We did go in 2017, but also felt very similar. It felt so different and fell flat. We chatted with local owners of a glass shop and they were lamenting about the city, specifically the cruise ships. It’s sad to see.

    1. That’s an interesting point, actually – my comments about Venice were a bit controversial amongst my Facebook friends. I wonder how much of that impasse stems from a difference in how recently each person visited. Certainly the current backpackers I’ve chatted with seem to be be of the same opinion. Bit of a shame, but one that hardly fouled my experience in Italy!

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