Over the past semester, I’ve learned that in Spain they like to make up excuses not to go to work. So, during the first week of December when there are two national holidays two days apart, much of the country likes to take the time to go on holiday. In Spain, December 6 is Día de la Constitución (a national holiday) and December 8 is Día de la Concepción (a religious holiday celebrate throughout Europe). This year, the holidays happened to fall on a Tuesday and Thursday, which made the middle of the week a “puente.” This is a Spanish phrase that literally means bridge, but is used to describe a day that turns into a holiday as a result of being in between two real holidays. During the puente many spaniards turned one (or both) of the holidays into a long weekend or just made the whole thing a week-long getaway. In Madrid, locals from smaller cities or villages came in bus loads to do Christmas shopping and spend time in the city. Many madrileños decided to leave the city to go visit their family’s pueblo. Other went further afield in the country or travelled to other parts of Europe. For our program, they gave us the whole week off, so we could write final papers, finish final projects, and prepare for final exams. Instead of this academic work, almost everyone in the program used the week as a perfect excuse to travel. Some people searched for Christmas cheer in eastern Europe and Germany, many went to Morocco, and others hit highlights like Paris, Rome, and Barcelona.
I, and my friend Julia, decided to tour Italy. Though our original plan consisted of a convoluted trip to the Amalfi Coast, we ended up seeing five cities, six grand churches, three Christmas markets, and countless Roman ruins as we treked through Milan, Rome, Florence, Bologna, and Venice over our nine day break.
Before we left for Italy, my host mom had raved about how each city had “su propio carácter” or personality. It wasn’t until we stepped foot in Florence, after spending 2 days in Milan and 3 in Rome, that I understood what she meant. Though each city I’ve visited in Spain does have its own vibe (Bilbao appeared almost German while Barcelona seemed American), many of the cities have felt similar. Maybe this is caused by the lack of foreign tourists in the smaller cities in Spain, or the similar architectural styles in much of Spain. Compared to Spain, each city in Italy felt like a new country. Milan was bustling and cosmopolitan, Rome felt, well, Roman (by this I mean there are Roman era ruins everywhere), Florence was vaguely Spanish, Bologna reminded us very much of Alcalá, and there’s nothing like car-less, canal-filled Venice.
It was an action packed, exhausting week, but here’s the highlights:
Day 1: We flew to Milan, or rather flew to Bergamo and then took a shuttle to Milan. Our hostel recommended we visit basically every church in the city, so we headed straight to the Duomo. We were blown away by the intricate gothic style of the cathedral. It was the closest thing I’ve seen to a completed Sagrada Familia. Full from our first real Italian meal eaten along the Christmas light draped canals, went to bed early.
Day #2: We took the high speed train to Rome. This was Julia and my first time in a high speed train, so to say we were excited would be an understatement. Three hours of beautiful countryside alternating between mountains and winery-covered rolling hills later, we arrived in Rome. After a puzzling interaction with our Airbnb host, we headed off to the Piazza Navona and Pantheon before dinner. One plate of gnocchi later we wandered home and collapsed in bed.
Day #3: This was our first real day of being tourists, and we went all out. We got up early to get to the Trevi fountain before the crowds. Apparently this site was important in the Lizzie McGuire movie. We worked up an appetite as we wandered up to a scenic over view at Villa Borghese after climbing the Spanish Steps. For a late lunch we went to Trastevere, then back to Piazza Navona for dinner and a cannoli.
Day #4: Vatican City. Again, we got up early, and because we already had tickets we didn’t have to wait in line. We wandered a bit aimlessly through the massive collection at the Vatican museums to the Sistine chapel. Next stop was St. Peter’s, which was just as incredible the second time. As we marveled at the church, we suddenly heard chanting and a group of pilgrims(?) led by religious men in white robes with purple scarves paraded into the basilica and began some kind of worship. We thought we might have gotten a glimpse of the Pope, but he never arrived…
Day #5: We went to the colosseum early and didn’t have to wait in line, but somewhere inside Julia dropped her ticket (who knew you needed to hold on to it? Not us!) so they wouldn’t let her in at the Forum. We peered in from the outside and headed back to Trastevere for caccio e pepe and one last cannoli from our favorite place, after which we took the train to Florence.
Day #6: Up early again (are you noticing a theme?) to see he Florence cathedral. I was so so excited to go to the Duomo because I had learned about it in my art history and architecture classes at Tufts. I had never really paid attention to anything besides the dome, so green and white marble front was quite startling. Despite this, the cathedral was even more beautiful than I imagined and definitely the best part of the trip. We climbed the bell tower first, which gave incredible views of the dome. The we climbed the dome, which gave nice views of the city but we definitely preferred looking at the dome. We also went in the church (a little unimpressive), the crypt (surprisingly interesting and full of the ancient ruins of temples and churches in the same location), and the baptistery (a small octagonal building that is overwhelming full of intricate religious mosaics). By the time we got to the museum, we were hungry and definitely didn’t want to shuffling slowly through Renaissance art exhibits Lunch was at Gusta pizza where our margherita pizzas were heart shaped. I could go on for a long time about Gusta pizza, but it was easily the best pizza I’ve ever had.
Day #7: This was probably the worst day on our trip on account of missing our train. After some poor communication, we bought tickets to the Uffizi gallery at 8:15 am to see Michelangelo’s David (which is actually at the Academia gallery, oops). After running through the museum we went to the train station only to find we were at the wrong one. We eventually got to Bologna via bus and immediately went for pizza. The restaurant prided itself on authentic Naples-style food, so our pizzas were topped with a large ball of buffala mozzarella. It was delicious. We spent the rest of the day touring the city, its historic porticoes, and Christmas markets.
Day #8: We boarded the train to Venice in the morning, and spent the rest of the day wandering the canals. We took a water taxi because we were too cheap to do a gondola ride, but we wanted to go out on the water. It was very touristy, but incredibly tranquil and beautiful. We were getting pretty tired, so we ate in and went to bed early.
Day #9: After a slow breakfast, we sprinted back across the bridges to our morning train back to Milan. Once we got to Milan, we got one last pizza, wandered around a city park, and took a scenic (but cold) tram ride. We ate our last dinner along the highly decorated canals, and went to bed full, happy to go back to Madrid but sad to leave the delicious food and beautiful country.