When I think of Italy, I think of dry summer heat and intense sun. I think of how it suddenly started raining buckets when we got off the train from Milan to Florence and how we ran rolling our suitcases behind us to our hotel 6 blocks away, umbrella-less and wet. I stopped in the middle of the narrow cobblestone streets not caring if I got soaked because the view I saw in front of me was so charming it stopped me in my tracks. I think of the warm, terra-cotta colors of the buildings in Bologna and the endless stretches of porticos overhead. I think about the spectacular churches that were beyond disbelief. And, I think about the food. How every pasta dish we had – even at the bar around the corner from our Airbnb our first night – was better than any plate of pasta we’ve had back home.
We dream about the pasta still.
Italy was a new experience for all of us. Unlike Paris or even our very short layover in Amsterdam where we stepped into cities that were familiar, our first trip to Italy felt like a totally new sensory experience – the colors, the language, the light, the food.
After a week in Paris, we took an 8 hour train to Milan and spent the night in the city. There was one thing that I wanted to see and that was the Duomo. Forever on my bucket list, it did not disappoint. The only thing that could have topped it was to come back again during sunset hours to watch the sky turn orange and violet from the upper terraces, just as I’ve seen it in videos and photos years before.
Florence was actually a late add-on for this trip and I can’t believe that we hadn’t considered it initially. Many cite Florence as one of the world’s prettiest cities and you believe it the minute you arrive. The Duomo in Florence is as different as can be from the Duomo in Milan – one is Gothic with its ornate spindly spires that reach high to the sky, the other a wonder of masonry and stone that changes in the light like a chameleon. The Florence Cathedral has to be seen in person. Words and photos just fail.
But the reason we came to Italy in the first place was Bologna. It’s not a typical stop in a multi-city Italy tour, and you sense it if you’re coming right from Florence which is tourist heaven. The streets by comparison are quiet and uncrowded, and you won’t find tourist shops that line every street like in Florence. The energy is also very different. But the food! We came here to eat and left in total adoration of the city’s terra-cotta, yellow, and orange colored houses. One thing about Italy is that the food is very moderately priced. We enjoyed the best cappuccinos for 1.50 euros and the best plates of pasta for 9 euros each. Despite the fact that you have to pay for water in Italy when you dine out, the no tipping culture means that a family of 4 can eat very well for a reasonable price. In the last few years as word has gotten out about how much of a food city Bologna is, tourists have been coming. As much as we enjoyed Florence for all the art, history and charm, we left Italy loving Bologna.
One of the reasons why Bologna remains high on our list of the highlights is because of the food tour that we booked. I mentioned on my previous post that it was a splurge – it wasn’t cheap by any means, but it was worth every single penny. We saw wheels of parmesan cheese being made by a master cheesemaker first thing in the morning; we visited a balsamic vinegar company housed in the attic of a family home and learned just how much a labor of love, family and tradition true balsamic actually is; and we toured a prosciutto factory which I admit, was a little too intense at times. I know, however, that we will never eat the same quality prosciutto that we amply sampled on our tour that day. The bottles of wine flowed all day, samples of cheese and meat were offered until we couldn’t sample any more, and we ended the day with a 3 hour late lunch in a private winery in the hillside country outside of Bologna. The tour guides were fantastic and we met travelers on our tour from all over the world. It was like having a big extended family meal which is why it made our trip to Italy so special. After all, traveling is not just about the sights and the food. It’s about connecting with people, isn’t it?