In this article, our guest author, Cole Mayer shares his trip to Italy, in which he discovers the challenges of Italian driving as well as the charms of visiting places that are a little off the tourist trail.
I had travelled around the world as a child. Europe was no stranger to me. But when it came time to honeymoon in Italy in 2014, I was at a bit of a loss as my parents had always arranged everything. My wife had also travelled the world and had been to Italy before, so she suggested that, along with going to some of the major tourist attractions for my benefit, we should look for out of the way attractions and hotels.
The hunt began. I scoured guidebooks. My eyes all but bled from researching on the internet. But finally, I put an itinerary together. We only booked the first and last hotels, flying by the seat of our pants for the majority of the trip.
Driving out of Milan
Upon landing in Milan, we picked up our rental car. During the hour-long drive out into the hillsides of Italy, I discovered that Italian drivers are strong believers of the “speed limits are suggestions” philosophy. Based on how fast I was going, I calculated one driver easily going 120 mph. The joke’s on them – they missed some beautiful scenery.
Olimpia, nestled near the top of a hill in San Salvatore Monferrato, was a welcome sight to a weary traveler. The Bed and Breakfast Olimpia where we stayed was the very definition of charming and rustic, with a spectacular view over the valley.
The owners suggested that we drive about 10 minutes into town for lunch, which sounded fantastic to both of us. Something must have been lost in translation, though, as the quaint town had all but closed for the day. When we walked into a restaurant, they shooed us out. Frustrated and hungry, we returned to the B&B.
Lunch and dinner that night consisted of crackers and gummy worms. Thankfully, they provided an amazing breakfast of cheese, meat and pastries the next morning. We headed back to Milan proper, staying at the Hotel Silver. The hotel itself was beautiful, with a motel-style layout but four-star interiors.
The main problem with the hotel was the location. It was a hidden gem, but located off a large, busy street. They provided a shuttle into the city proper, a godsend for getting in and out of the hotel. Our first stop was the Duomo, the third-largest church in the world.
I highly recommend simply walking around Milan, even just around the Duomo. The architecture is hundreds of years old, but looks new. You can’t swing a spaghetti noodle without hitting a church or religious building. Because most visitors will stick with the Duomo, they tend to be quiet affairs, allowing contemplation of the artifacts held within ancient walls.
A little more obscure, however, is the Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia “Leonardo da Vinci.” Dedicated in part to the famed Renaissance man, the museum features models based on da Vinci’s sketches, from war machines to farming tools.
The museum itself is easily worth a half day’s tour. They fit multiple, full-sized boats inside the water transportation exhibit. Much like the smaller churches, because it is not a major tourist destination, it was fairly quiet when we were there, a nice change from the bustle of the city.
The next city we visited was Bologna. We stayed in what was clearly meant to be a business hotel, the Hotel Cosmopolitan. It was a few miles outside the city, but after visiting the supermarket to buy provisions, we realized my wife’s iPad was still at Hotel Silver, and they would not send it to us.
Not deterred, we headed out and wandered around the city on foot, eventually meeting with a crowd of college students who had just been released from class. Following the students, we found a hole-in-the-wall gelato place near Via Santo Stefano where all the locals went for an afternoon snack.
That night, we dined at Ristorante Garganelli. It was expensive, but worth it – especially for our honeymoon.
After a two-hour drive back to Milan to retrieve the iPad, we started the journey to Rome. I can’t suggest not driving enough. Our nerves were shot to pieces, as we had picked Halloween night to drive into Rome. Apparently, Romans love the holiday and the streets were packed, even at 10 p.m. The streets are highly confusing at night. Next time, we’ll fly in.
Eventually, we made it to Hotel Maison Althea. The one-way alley it is on looked disreputable at first glance, but the penthouse hotel was top-notch. It helped that the owner delivered breakfast every morning, after asking you what breakfast foods we liked. It was also only a few minutes’ walk to a major subway and train station.
We drove our rental car to the airport, turned it in early, and took a train back to that station. From there, we went to the Coliseum. We spent a week in Rome – half of our honeymoon. The Spanish Steps, crowded with people, were a sight to see – especially with the view from the top.
What I really wanted to see, though, was the “Monster Door.” Created by the two artist brothers living in the building, they simply wanted their doorway to stand out. Though it can be seen in just a few moments, and is a stone’s throw away from the Steps, there was only the couple you see in the photo, and us.
As we had planned only our first and last hotels, we moved from Maison Althea to Villa Magnolia Relais, an oasis in an otherwise cold apartment district. We made our last tourist stop with a private tour of the Vatican’s attractions and took another trip to a grocery store.
That was the end of our Italian honeymoon, though we almost missed the flight back to the States – but that’s a story for another time. The moral of the trip, though, is not to confine yourself. We rented a car and went where we felt like going. We walked around. We saw the big tourist attractions, but weren’t limited to them. We stayed in hotels that, for being off the proverbial paved path, were exquisite. I doubt I could travel any other way again.
Other things to see and do in Italy
All photos by Cole Mayer