I had last been to Italy in 1984; a family holiday involving a long drive from London to a villa near Sienna. I have memories of visiting Siena and seeing preparations for the annual The Palio in Siena, visiting San Gimignano, taking in the wonders of Pisa and Florence and getting to grips with Italian Lira.
I remember Tuscany being insanely hot and dry, and visiting numerous small towns with narrow, cobbled alleyways. I also remember the number of near misses and being a hair breadth away from a pile up. The roads were narrow yet oncoming traffic never slowed and hurtled around tight corners without a care in the world.
This was the one aspect that I feared most before and during my holiday in Italy this time around. Head Office had found a spectacular place to stay in Lake Como but it was in a remote location. Train, bus and taxis were out. The only option was to do something I dreaded most: drive. But that was to come later; first we flew into Rome from Gatwick.
Europe being what is, EU citizens have a better time getting through immigration. The same cannot be said for non-EU citizens and there was a huge queue as the three or four officers on manning the booths, tried to deal with the hoards. Nearly two hours after landing Head Office and I finally met our AirBnB hosts who had charged €60 to drive us to the flat.
Throughout the whole journey, our host rattled off various facts about Rome, what to see, how to get about, where to buy subway tickets, where to buy water. All useful information from someone, who it turned out, was a registered tour guide in Rome.
Knowing that we were staying in Rome for just two nights, Head Office had found the cheapest but nicest looking apartment in the city not paying too much attention to the reviews or location. Our apartment backed onto an ancient viaduct in a part of town in a street that ran parallel to the train line and where the street lamps didn't try that hard to light the way.
Still, we dumped our gear, and headed straight out for a fine Italian dinner at a nearby restaurant ordering a calzone and carbonara washed down with one or two local beers.
The next day we went out early beginning with a coffee at a nice little cafe next to the metro station. €3 was paid to a tobacco kiosk for two metro tickets and we headed down to the station. This subway station matched the depressing mood of the area by being poorly lit and dirty. Stairs down to the platform - again, same decorator as the station's concourse - and a short wait for the train. The metro is easy to use and the €1.50 ticket goes to any stop on the line for a maximum 100 minutes.
After a change at Rome Termini, we emerged into the brilliant sunshine at the Colosseum (see my other blog post on this) where I realised my critical error of packing only longs and not shorts. We had checked the weather before we left and it was cloudy, rain and single figures. We got there and of course it was the opposite. Hot sun, blue skies, double digit temperatures.
Having 'done' the Colosseum and other historical sites, we returned home. The next day we took in the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Popular Square and walked everywhere joining the throngs of others doing the same.
We only did two days in Rome before catching the high speed rail to Milan at a thrilling 300kph. The hire car place was just outside the station and I had pre-booked a VW Golf but was upgraded to a Range Rover. All good, I thought. Although it's an easy drive, I found it was just too big for the narrow roads around Lake Como.
The drive and driving was fine. Yes, it felt like I was the only one sticking to the speed limit and probably the only person in the entire country to indicate before overtaking. In Hong Kong, overtaking in any road tunnel is strictly prohibited but in Italy it's not. Something I was never able to get used to and, even worse, some tunnels are two way meaning cars are using the other lane.
Normally, Head Office and I opt for self-contained units when we travel. Hotels are nice and they have facilities such as a pool but on holiday, we find it's just a nicer experience to have that option of storing stuff in a fridge and cooking and forgoing the frills. It just so happens in Lake Como the hotels are expensive. In fact, the whole of Lake Como is expensive with prices being on the same level as Hong Kong.
The best place we visited was Gera Lario because the views from the lakeside were truly spectacular. We liked it so much, we went twice. Both times were lucky with the weather which was otherwise cold and rainy. We went to the bank here and the staff were very helpful.
Overall, I liked Italy. Will give Rome a miss next time and look to visit Tuscany, Florence, Venice etc. Can easily see myself and Head Office spending more time there. I'd return to Lake Como too and stay at the same place or in a village further up. The views are simply stunning even if this was an expensive holiday.