I highly recommend backpacking with your close friends or significant other. It’s not expensive and you see so much more than you would on a more fixed holiday.
In June 2015, Sam and I visited eight Italian towns/cities in under two weeks, with a sprinkling of Athens thrown in at the end (the lure of a free ferry was more than enough to encourage us to visit Greece, but more on that later).
We made big savings my booking cheap flights to and from Manchester and by booking our trains a few weeks in advance online via ItaliaRail. What savings we made on travel we then used to fund private dorm rooms (rather than big, noisy hostel dorms) and on eating out and sampling all of the local food and drink. Part of the fun with this was going to places that were recommended by a travel food book we ha, which recommended the best places in each city, depending on cuisine or cost. This was an essential travel companion to us.
Our route, from Venice to Athens
Before we get into the meat and bones of this, time to pull back the curtain a little and expose how this trip came about. Sam and I were at a BBQ about six weeks before leaving, boozily agreed to interrail together based on the fact we both needed to get away, and a week later we booked some flights to Venice and back from Athens. The rest was a case of fill in the blanks using what we knew about Italy (very little) and TripAdvisor’s list of best cities to visit 2015. How Rimini came to be on that list I’ll never know, but more on that later.
We also had one rule: If we were recommended anything, or invited to anything, whether by locals, other tourists or by friends who had sent us their tips, we made sure we did it.
My overall thoughts, upon returning, are that you could spend months in Italy and not scratch the surface. We didn’t go to Rome because Sam had already been. We didn’t go to Pisa, Cinque Terre, Milan, Siena, Lucca, Lecce, Puglia, Amalfi, Capri or Sicily. They are all places I’m certain are worth a visit. All the same, we went where we wanted to go most while still keeping our travels in the form of a backpacking trip. And here’s how it begun:
Landing at Venice’s airport is normal enough. It’s only when you leave the airport that you start to notice that your day is going to be quite other-worldly. Although other options exist, we took the water-bus from the airport to the main lagoon island of Venice, in the dark. And this trip simply doesn’t prepare you for the city which is surrounded, often right up to the doorsteps, by lapping water.
We stayed on the island of Lido rather than the main island. I’d recommend this for two reasons. One: It’s cheaper by far. Two: You’ll sign yourself up to a vaporetto multi day-pass which will let you cross the main stretch of water as much as you want, but also take you on a loop around Venice. We took trips up the Grand Canal by vaporetto and walked back through the city on a number of occasions and this alone is a great day. Winding your way between the incredibly beautiful buildings and down cramped alleyways is a really fun part of visiting the city.
We visited all of the touristy sites such as the Doge’s Palace, Saint Mark’s Basilica, Piazza San Marco, The Bridge of Sighs, Rialto Bridge, the Accademia and Santa Maria della Salute, but also took in some of the less well-known sites such as the Jewish Ghetto’s bakery, the beach at Lido and Spritz Hour at the Campo San Giacomo di Rialto square.
Departing Venice by train, it’s highly likely that you’ll pass through Bologna on your way south. Knowing of it’s foodie prowess, we intentionally gave ourselves a half day in Bologna, en route to Florence, to look around and take in some authentic cuisine.
First thing’s first: Bologna is pretty. It’s no Venice, Florence or Rome, but given that it was only the second city we’d visited we enjoyed all it had to offer. After a few hours site-seeing, using a map and route provided by the local tourist information, we found a trattoria and gorged on buffalo mozarella, vino tinto and ragu. The photo to the right shows some of Bologna’s food (discount the gelato, which was from Florence, and the cannoli from Positno, to be discussed later).
If you’re ever visiting Florence, you could do a lot worse than seeking advice from our friend Leni. She took us under her wing and showed us around the city on our first night. Immediate impressions were that Florence was very pretty, more-so than Bologna certainly, but wait until you walk around the corner and see the Duomo tower above your head. My breath was taken away.
The Duomo is such a beautiful building, from afar it appears pink and white but up close it has a very distinct green hue. And the city doesn’t stop to surprise. A brisk walk up to the Piazza Michelangelo at night reveals incredible views across the city. A climb to the top tower of the Palazzo Vecchio gives panoramic views all around. But my favourite was a little insider tip provided by Leni. We visited the Hotel Baglioni’s rooftop bar and had a cocktail. The views were incredible.
Good food isn’t hard to come by in Florence, but my tip would be to check out the Mercato Centrale indoor market. The upper floor of this Victorian-styled market has been converted and now houses street vendors whose food is delicious. Breakfast, lunch or dinner, you won’t be let down.
I’ll get this off my chest first: Rimini isn’t particularly nice. But it is a lot of fun. We stayed at a hostel which has a reputation for being a lot of fun – the Sunflower Beach Hostel (as opposed to the City one). It’s small and very orange but we made a lot of friends and really enjoyed our stay.
Robbie the event manager twisted our arm into attending a Tunga rave at a local waterpark, a gay night which was beyond wild and a major memory of the trip. We had a fantastic time watching impressive stage performances and dancing in the crowds. On other nights Robbie organised for those from the hostel who were interested to attend a pub crawl and on another night the hostel put on a part itself. I’m sure you get the idea: party, hangover, party, hangover, party, hangover. On loop.
Positives about Rimini It’s fun. It’s close to San Marino. It has a beach.
Negatives about Rimini It’s not the nicest place you’ll ever visit.
If you’re in Bologna or Rimini, a wonderful day-trip to the Most Serene Republic of San Marino has to be right at the top of your itinerary. The oldest state in Europe, very possibly the world, is much like a fairtale castle dream world. These hill forts stand sentinel over the surrounding countryside and cry out to be explored.
Sorrento and Positano
First things first: Sorrento and Positano are wonderful and you must visit them.
Secondly: Sorrento and Positano are situated around the Bay of Naples and getting there by either hydrofoil or train is basically, in a word, dodgy!
We took the Circumvesuvian train from Napoli to Sorrento on the way there. It’s not a nice train and, possibly more because we’d read it feels dodgy than because it actually is, we were a little on our guard. On the way back we tried the slightly more expensive hydrafoil, but ended up walking through Napoli’s port town, which felt even more dodgy than the train. I’m sure this is the best way if you take a bus to the hydrafoil, but that’s a lesson you learn with the benefit of hindsight!
Still, the 45min journey to Sorrento is a necessity if you’re in Italy, and well worth the trip. The port town of Sorrento has a lovely harbour, some excellent food, a tiny little Shot Bar that we deeply enjoyed, is a gateway to the Amalfi coast, boat trips to Capri and, best of all by far, the Bagni Della Regina Giovanna.
The Bagni is what we would later come to describe to friends as a secret lagoon. In truth it’s no secret, it’s on TripAdvisor and when we visited there were some others there, but it’s a 20min walk from the town, up a hill, in the heat, so it’s a little work, but well worth it. I honestly can say it was one of the best days of my life. Around from this incredible lagoon is a bridge walkway to a very quiet bar. I’d honestly recommend going to Sorrento purely for this experience.
After visiting the Bagni we took a bus from Sorrento to Positano, which is a beautifully multi-coloured town which is built on a very steep gradient. Starting at the top of the town you follow steps right down to the shore. Don’t worry about how steep the climb back up will be, that’s something to worry about for later, just enjoy it. We made our way directly to Collina Bakery for their famous cannoli. They have an air conditioned restaurant which we also ate granita at later. This is a super half-day trip, just brace yourself for a very steep return journey up the hill and a bit of a fight to get on the very busy busses back.
My advice is that on extremely hot days you choose to visit Herculaneum rather than Pompeii. It’s just much more manageable. Pompeii is fascinating, but it’s enormous and completely exposed. We were cooked by the end of the four hours we spent here.
I’m a huge history geek and as such Pompeii has always been at the top of my bucket list. So as you can imagine, no warnings about the heat were going to put me off. First impressions are one of awe. The buildings which you were are fascinating but very soon this turns to relative boredom as the streets are almost identical throughout. When at last we sought out the amphitheatre, forum, basilica, graveyard and stadium we were treated to some of the sites you come for. Inside the stadium was an exhibition which displayed some of those who had perished in the eruption in the position in which they were found. You can truly see the expressions of pain on their faces. Harrowing, but fascinating.
Time for an explanation about why we were now ready to traverse the country, where the trains don’t go, to visit Bari. When planning this trip we’d planned to buy Interrail passes. Those passes offered a free ferry to Greece. So we booked our flights back from Athens. Nearer the time it came to book trains we found buying our trains was cheaper than buying an Interrail pass, including the price of the ferry that had been free. So we now had to get to Bari, by bus from Napoli, to take in some of the beautiful port part of the city, before taking a 16hr ferry to Greece.
Bari has a port town and a more modern part of the town. Stay in the port town. It’s ornate closes and alleyways are incredible. Our beautiful B&B had a rooftop terrace where we were able to enjoy come beers and look out over the city. We visited a restaurant which was recommended by our B&B, eating a memorable meal which was ordered with very broken Italian using menus which had no prices and, as it turned out, formed a seven course meal that was very reasonable.
We enjoyed the following morning in Bari before joining our ferry for a long journey across to Greece.
Up until this point, San Marino had arguably stolen the show. Florence and Venice had been beautiful, the lagoon at Sorrento had been one of the most incredibly places I’ve ever visited, but San Marino was edging it on the basis of impact and shock factor.
Step up Athens, which I think was the most wonderful city of all. Steeped in history, extremely cheap to eat and drink in and full of wonderful people, Athens was fantastic. I really enjoyed that the city has various neighbourhoods which are all very different in appearance and style. Plaka, white and delicate; Old Agura, ancient; Monastiraki, vibrant, colourful and offering delicious souvlaki and of course the Acropolis.
The Acropolis is a double-edged sword. It clearly hasn’t been looked after. And it’s ridiculously busy. But it’s wonderful. I had to catch my breath while walking around the Parthenon. I’ll forever remember that I couldn’t quite believe I was actually there.
The tube, the restaurants, the people, the airport – all great reasons to visit Athens. We stayed in Omonia, a district which was inexpensive but just a few stops from everywhere. We ate at a fantastic Cretan restaurant and tried raki. We had cocktails and visited the Panathenaic stadium, Temple of Zeus and much more. I can’t wait to go back.
If you’ve enjoyed reading about our trip and would like to ask any questions, pop a comment below or send me a message. I’ll always be happy to share any of my maps, budgets, trip inventories or other information.