We had wanted to visit Spain for the longest time and even started basic planning to it. With the cities we had mind, considerable time (and money) was going to be spent in getting from one place to another given the geography of the country.
Then on a hunch I took a close look at Italy. The shape of the country is such that one can start from the north and head south (or vice versa) covering places along the route and then fly out from the south without going back to the port of entry. Indian airlines like Jet and AI had flights from India in addition to European and middle-eastern ones which would make air fares more competitive. My basic research also revealed that Italian trains are relatively cheap but as efficient as any other. Add to it the fact that Italy has the maximum number of world heritage sites. Last but not the least, some of the food would be familiar to us in Mumbai and that would really help vegetarians like my wife!
We also decided to visit in October to experience the chill for a change but thought November may be pushing it a bit.
We finalised our itinerary as follows: Lake Como – Milan – Florence – Rome
Trains in Italy
A word on buying train tickets in Italy. Italy has 2 major train companies – Trenitalia and Italo. Both run high speed train services. Trenitalia also has regular and semi-high speed trains that run outside the high speed line. It is advisable to buy tickets directly on their website. If you haven’t bought them in advance, you may also buy them on the spot at vending machine at the major stations.
On landing in Milan Malpensa, we headed straight to Como. Train tickets are available at the airport and the journey involves an interchange at Saronno. The first leg is on the airport express that goes to the city. You need to alight at Saronna, change platforms and catch the train to Como Nord Lago. One can also continue on the airport express all the way into Milan and change trains there but why go further.
The train from Saronno (the wait is approx. 15 minutes only) is a local commuter line so that means no announcements in English, no route maps in the train and short halts! We were staying at the Ibis Hotel and were told to alight at Portichetto, the nearest station which we fortunately managed to after asking around. You shouldn’t face this problem if you’re staying in the centre (Portichetto is a small village near Como) and would have to alight at the terminating station Como Nord Lago.
Accommodation – Ibis Como which is a 15-minute walk from Portichetto station. This is a small village and there is no public transport available and taxis need to be called for. The hotel is bang on the main road with cars zipping by and some stretches of the walk to the hotel do not have a footpath! The hotel is comfortable but has no room service. There are a couple of restaurants nearby including an Italian one, Japanese, a kebab place and even an American fast food place.
To get to the lake side, one needs to head to Como Nord Lago. Trains from Portichetto are 1-2 per hour and the last stop is Como Nord Lago. Check the Trenord website for schedule; the ticket is Eur 1.8 per person.
1. Como Cathedral – free entry but one is encouraged to make a donation. Walking distance from the Como Nord Lago
2. Volta monument – walking distance from Como Nord Lago
3. Villa Olmo – the villa is used for exhibitions so one can’t visit but the grounds are open to visitors
4. Brunate – this is a nice small village which you can reach through the funicular (Eur 15 for a 2-way ride). Spend half a day walking around and have lunch at the top there.
5. Bellagio – the most popular lake side town. Catch the Autolinee bus service to get there. The journey takes 45 minutes through a very narrow road and costs Eur 5.Other attractions in Bellagio:
i. Ghisallo Cycling Museum - http://museodelghisallo.it/il-museo-del-ciclismo-madonna-del-ghisallo/
iii. Island Comacina - http://www.isola-comacina.it/
Other attractions we didn’t visit for lack of time:
1. Villa del Balbaniello - http://www.visitfai.it/villadelbalbianello/la-tua-visita/orari-di-apertura-e-info-utili
2. MU.R.A.C. MUSEO RIFUGI ANTIAREI – air raid shelter during world war http://www.murac.it/.
3. Castello Baradello - http://www.lakecomo.it/territorio/luoghi_interesse/castello_baradello
Visit the official Como website for more attractions http://www.visitcomo.eu/en/index.html.
ASF Autolinee is the local bus service. The bus station is right outside Como Nord Lago station so pick up a brochure for details of the services. Buying the ticket at the ticket office is cheaper than on the bus.
There are plenty of cafes and ristorantes for tourists once you get to the centre but head further inside and away from the crowd to find nice trattorias. The one we loved was called Taverna Spagnola https://www.tripadvisor.in/Restaurant_Review-g187835-d1989123-Reviews-Taverna_Spagnola-Como_Lake_Como_Lombardy.html.
The main inter-city station is Como San Giovanni (20 min walk from Como Nord Lago). To get to Milan, you can catch a train from either station. The ticket price (operated by Trenord) is the same, approx. Eur 4.8. Como San Giovanni is further away from the centre. If you need to go further from Milan, mostly likely you will have to take the train from Como San Giovanni. Como San Giovanni has a left luggage service but Como Nord Lago doesn’t as it’s used by a local commuter line.
1. Milan Duomo – not to be missed at any cost. Tickets are only Eur 2 per person to visit the cathedral. The queues are long but there is also a ticket window behind the cathedral that most people are unaware of and so the queue is shorter, if there is one at all.
2. Leonardo da Vinci's vineyard - http://www.vignadileonardo.com/
4. Crypt of Leonardo – underground church near Piazza Duomo. http://www.criptasansepolcromilano.it/index_en/
5. Navigli – a bohemian district with canal system designed by Leonardo. One should visit in the evenings for a stroll and dinner.
6. Parco Sempione – a massive park in heart of the city next to Castello Sforzesco.
7. Castello Sforzesco – the castle grounds are free but the museums inside (there are many of them!) require an admission ticket. The museums are free on Tuesday after 2pm!
8. Basilica di Santa Maria delle Grazie – this church is home to Leonardo’s The Last Supper. One needs to book tickets in advance. This is the official website http://www.vivaticket.it/?wms_op=cenacoloVinciano&Language=ENG.
9. Historic House Museums of Milan - http://www.casemuseomilano.it/en/index.php
10. Casa Manzoni – another historic house. http://www.casadelmanzoni.it/content/il-percorso-museale.
Although there is a metro and tram service, the metro is easier to master.
The Milano Card is not worth buying and one may as well buy the metro pass for getting around.
Florence has innumerable museums so you’ll have to pick and choose. The Uffizi Gallery and the Academia Gallery are the biggest attractions and also come with steep entry tickets. It’s a good idea to skip all the museums and just walk through the old city which is what we did. Here’s a list of the major attractions.
1. Uffizi Gallery
2. Academia Gallery – Michaelangelo’s master piece David is housed here.
5. Palazzo Dazavanti http://www.imuseidifirenze.it/palazzo-davanzati/
6. Casa Gudi http://www.florin.ms/casaguid.html
7. Dante’s Museum http://www.imuseidifirenze.it/museo-casa-di-dante/
8. Museo Galileo
9. Palazzo Strozzi
10. Palazzo Medici Riccardi
11. Leonardo da Vinci Museum - http://www.mostredileonardo.com/
12. Mercato Centrale - food market with nice eateries above.
There a bunch of villas on the outskirts built by the Medicci family.
1. Villa di Petraia
2. Villa di Poggio a Caiano
3. Villa di Cerreto Guidi
Although Florence does not have a metro service, it has a good bus service run by Ataf http://www.ataf.net/en/ataf.aspx?idC=2&LN=en-US.
Tickets for a trip can be bought at any tabacchi (tobacco shop, they’re everywhere). All you need to do is download the Ataf app to find out the bus number for your destination.
To get to Pisa from Florence, you can buy a Trenitalia ticket from Firenze Santa Maria Novella to Pisa Centrale. There are frequent connections and the duration is approx. 1 hour. The leaning tower is a nice 15-20 minute walk from Pisa Centrale.
Rome has so many attractions that’s it’s a herculean task to identify the best. Although we visited the Colosseum, we found it a bit of an anti-climax. After that, we decided to visit the parks and squares of Rome. If you do not have archaeological interests, it is best you skip the attractions and enjoy the outdoors.
The top attraction in Rome for me was the Trevi Fountain!
We also made day trip to Ostia and Frascati.
i. Ostia is the nearest and most popular beach town for the Romans. In peak season, it can be very crowded and buzzing. Since we visited towards the end of the season, it was nice and quiet. It was a lovely beach and there were plenty of nice restaurants around. To get there, take the Metro B line to Piramide. From Piramide, walk over to another platform (without exiting the station) and catch the Roma Lido line to get down at Ostia Lido. You don’t need to buy a new ticket and the Metro ticket works.
ii. Frascati is a wine producing town near Rome and is renowned for its white wine. You can do a vineyard visit and spend some time walking around the small town. To get there, you can catch a train from Roma Termini. Trains are hourly but make sure to check the Trenitalia website for the schedule. The journey is approx. 40 minutes and ticket is approx. Eur 2-3.
It is best to buy the metro pass for metro trips rather than buying the Roma Pass which includes metro travel.
To get to and from the Fiumocino airport, you can take the Leonardo Express from Roma Termini. A one-way ticket is Eur 12. However, there is also a frequent bus service right outside the station that takes you to the airport for half of that (the journey is longer and takes 1 hour).