As our ongoing, open-ended journey continues, we slipped out of slow-travel mode for a spell to indulge in a quick little 11 day tour of northeastern Italy. For quite a while now, we’ve had our travel sights set on the southeastern region of Europe that lines the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea, and we plan to explore that area thoroughly over the next 5 months. We were able to score a cheap airfare from Mexico to Milan, so it seemed a shame not to take in some of the splendor of Italy along the way.
After a quick look around Milan in the daze of jet lag, we spent 4 days in the medieval city of Verona, another 4 in the picturesque town of Malcesine on Lake Garda and then two nights in Venice. It took a few days to get over the sticker shock, as we were suddenly spending 3 times more per day than we were in Mexico for the same level of comfort. We probably could’ve scrimped hard and only spent double of what we were used to, but what fun would that be in a country like Italy, gushing with food and fun. Certainly we knew what we were getting into well ahead of our arrival, and we also know that we’re headed for more frugal times in Eastern Europe, so we designated Italy as a splurge destination. After all, if you’re not in it to enjoy, then why even bother to travel?
And in Italy, it’s hard not to enjoy if you’ve got your eyes open more than half the time. The natural scenery is breathtaking and ancient structures of incredible grandeur are so prevalent, it’s silly. There’s certainly plenty of ugly, modern industrial and commercial zones like anywhere else in this day and age, but since we were firmly on the tourist path of Northern Italy, it’s literally like a scene out of a fairy tale around every bend.
When we weren’t gawking at some mind-bendingly beautiful castle or mountain or something, we were thinking about where to eat next. When it comes to cuisine, Italian is easily the second best in the world for both Haruka and I. Sorry Italy… but there’s just no contest as long as Japan is around, but we do love us some pasta, pizza and Italian sweets! I’m not going to say I was disappointed with the food in Italy, so please don’t read it that way, but I can’t say that we were ever truly blown away by the food during our 11 day stay. We never had a bad meal in that stretch, but most meals fell within the category of medium-great (if that makes any sense). Food is good here, straight up, but finding that next level taste exclamation proved elusive for us. Perhaps it was because we were reluctant to spend more than $60 for both of us on a meal, but I think it was more likely a case of being on the tourist trail. Indeed, the best meals we found tended to be on back streets or on the edges of a town, but I think the real deal is in the kitchen of any home in Italy. Incidentally, by far the best Italian food we’ve had since we started traveling was in two different places… Pequeños Pecados in San Pedro, Guatemala and Cafe Bistrot Epicuro in Oaxaca, Mexico. Both restaurants are run by Italian chefs that are cooking at extremely high levels, and for $50 or less, two people can be absolutely blown away by a top-notch Italian meal in both of these places.
As for the Italian people…they’re amazing to me. Some of the most dynamic people on the planet for sure. These are not people that beat around the bush. They are often dramatic, and they will definitely tell it to you like it is, which in general, I completely appreciate. A lot of tourists will say that Italian waiters are rude. I would say they are direct, and sometimes impatient, but I don’t think that most of them are trying to be rude. The directness was so intense at times that for us, it wasn’t shitty, but rather highly entertaining and even comical. I mean no disrespect, but when someone brings that much seriousness and then throws in a bit of emotion, it can be downright theatrical, and I for one would rather leave an establishment entertained than pissed off. I guess it’s all just a matter of perspective, but to me, Italian people are awesome!
The only thing not awesome about Italy is the way their transportation systems are organized. Some stations are ok, but some like Santa Lucia station in Venice are so inefficient that they seem set up to make passengers miss their connections. C’mon Italy, Take a page from Japan or your neighbors in Switzerland and set up a coherent transportation system that makes it easy for people to get around your beautiful country. Or don’t. One way or the other, it’s all just part of the travel experience, and the easier the experience, the more forgettable it tends to be. In this case, the ridiculous clunkiness of the ticket machine that aided us in missing our train out of Venice and subsequently our bus to Slovenia, led us to an excellent discovery.
Since we had 4 hours to kill in Mestre station until the next bus for Ljubljana, I decided to seek out some alternate options, which led me to BlaBlaCar. This a UK based ridesharing service that connects riders with drivers all over Europe with an easy-to-navigate website. Within a few hours we were able to secure a ride to Ljubljana with a cool Slovenian woman and her sweet dog. We got there in almost half the time that the bus takes and it only set us back €25 for both of us. The bus would’ve cost €100 and we probably wouldn’t have gotten the free information session on Slovenia that Maja gave us with her perfect English. As we go forward, I imagine we’ll be using this service a lot, and I highly recommend it for anyone traveling around Europe. This was a huge find for us, as we’ve got 5 months of European travel ahead of us, so thank you Italy, for having such a crap-ass transportation system. But most of all, thank you Italy for a beautiful 11 days. We shall return!