Ciao, Italia!

Ajay Bulusu loves to travel, and as a Google employee, he gets to do so quite a bit. During a recent trip to Europe, Ajay took a small break in Italy before returning home. This is his Italian encounter.
I had four days between leaving Ireland and catching my flight back home from Milan, so my destination was chosen by default (not that I’m complaining). Initial research showed both Venice and Florence were 90 minutes from Milan by rail. Venice being the more romantic destination, the obvious choice for a single traveller like me was Florence. Anyone who’s read Dan Brown’s “Inferno” will understand why I chose the Tuscan city. Additionally, I was rather keen to see the region’s famous sunset.

The city of Florence completely blew my mind! I usually travel alone, but I feel like I should have seen Italy with a companion. There’s so much beauty and romance there, unlike the wilder side of Europe like Prague and Berlin. If you enjoy art and culture, history or photography, you can spend a lifetime in Italy without ever getting bored, even by yourself! My trip was short, so I was at ease on my own, but I’m sure that a bottle of wine is better with someone to share it.
I arrived in Milan and went to my hostel, Ostello Bello. It came highly recommended, and it’s ideal if you aren’t fussy about having a fancy hotel. The hostel is in the city centre where the nightlife is buzzing, but it isn’t the kind of nightlife you’ll find in other parts of Europe, where pubs and clubs stretch down the streets. Italy’s nightlife is a more relaxed version with wine and cocktails, music and conversation.

The next day, I visited Duomo di Milano, the city’s largest cathedral, but I couldn’t scale it as the queue seemed endless. I walked around the city centre through the Rectangle of Gold, the world’s oldest mall and the Mecca of the fashion industry. Next, I went through the Piazza della Scala and reached Milan’s high street, Via Monte Napoleone. At night, I went to a football match at one of the world’s greatest arenas, the famous San Siro. The season was just beginning, so tourists from all around the world were there. The fashion and art scene in Milan easily lives up to the hype with all the latest styles, boutique shoemakers, incredible furniture, and spacious art galleries.

Day two was dedicated to Florence. True to its reputation, it seemed like one big outdoor museum. I picked up a map and began walking; it’s best to experience and discover the city on foot. Michelangelo’s “David” is something everyone flocks to, and queues sometimes stretch for a few kilometres. I chose to avoid the lines and see the rest of the city first.

A short walk through the narrow streets got me to the magnificent Basilica di Santa Maria Novella, where I explored the gorgeous exterior and interior. I went through Piazza della Signoria and reached Florence’s main square, near Palazzo Vecchio where you can catch a glimpse of a replica of “David” over a lunch with fine wine. My next stop was the Piazzale degli Uffizi, followed by the Piazzale Michelangelo to end my day watching the sunset. The 400 steps, though tedious, are totally worthwhile when you finally see the view from the top!

I’m a firm believer in staying at hostels while travelling alone. It’s a great way to meet both tourists and locals, and to explore Europe in all its authenticity. Italy is rich with history, culture and art. Having the highest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites is a testament to its history. The locals are very friendly, though communication is a bit of a task if you don’t know Italian. I must warn anyone planning to travel there to beware of pickpockets; you never know when something will go missing from your pocket in Italy.
Like most Indians, I had a stereotypical impression of Italian food before I went. I thought it was all about pasta, pizza, risotto and gelato. I wasn’t a big fan of Italian food growing up, but I now hold it second only to Indian. What amazed me most about the food was that nearly every city and region has its own way of cooking, very much like Indian cuisine. There is Veneto, Tuscan, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Piedmont and Lazio, to name a few.

Though I couldn’t try them all, I found distinct differences between the food in Milan and Florence. Right from the ingredients to the toppings to the number of courses, each region has its own way. The Italian coffee and gelato were exceptional! I loved the food so much that I could talk endlessly about it, but I’ll just mention a few must-haves: pizza (of course), pasta, amazing coffee, a staggering number of wines, limoncello, and the lip-smacking gelato.
I couldn’t see da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”, as tickets had been sold out for a month, nor could I scale the Duomo in Milan; both of these are on my bucket list for next time! I’d also love to see Michelangelo’s “David”, and delve deeper into the incredible Italian food and wine. If you do visit Italy, don’t miss out on Florence, whereas Milan might appeal more if you’re a shopaholic!     – as told to Saloni