I’m just back from vacation in Italy, one of the world’s truly fascinating, beautiful places. Let me tell you about it.
I went first, before my wife and daughter, and spent nine days hiking the Dolomites, the Italian Alps.
I’d always wanted to go there, and I wasn’t disappointed. Not the Alps’ highest peaks, the Dolomites are among the most scenic. I hiked with a touring company called Alpine Hikers, headquartered in Arizona. I’d hiked with them twice before, in 1999 and 2006, so this was my third trip. They provided a guide who walked the entire journey with me and two other hikers.
We averaged around 7-9 miles each day, and it was seldom flat. Cumulative climbing was typically 2000 to 3000 vertical feet, and it was a strenuous six to eight hour walk each day. But gosh, it was worth it!
One morning stands above the others. The day before, day three, we’d done our longest hike, around 12 miles, ending atop a mountain called Lagazuoi. The Refugio, or mountain hotel, is situated at 9300 feet of elevation. The morning after our arrival was one of the most breathtaking in my life, with the sun rising over craggy peaks to the east, the full moon setting over newly illuminated mountains to the west, and in the foreground below, fog swirling up and down over minor ridges. Wow!
At the conclusion of my hiking trip, I took the train (Italy has extensive public transportation throughout the country) southward to Venice, where I met my wife and daughter. We stayed on the eastern, less developed part of the island, and explored on foot and boats each day.
The canals are the best known feature, but I loved that there are no cars whatsoever. The entire city is traveled on foot and boats. It was bizarre to see everyday items such as fruits and vegetables, sofas and washing machines, delivered by boat.
We took the bullet train to Florence, where the digital display in the car indicated our car was going an amazing 300kph (186mph) and toured the museum that houses Michelangelo’s David, perhaps the world’s most famous and revered granite statue.
We toured the medieval Tuscan cities and towns of Pisa (with its iconic leaning tower), Lucca, San Gimignano (with its 14 towers), Montepulciano, Monteriggioni, Borgo a Mozzano, Siena, and Cortona. Each had its own distinctive geography, architecture, and history.
We benefited in having a private tour guide, a man named Federico Ciavattone whom we met in August when he attended a conference at Tech and happened upon our bookseller’s booth at Steppin’ Out. The best meal of the trip was prepared by his mother at their two-bedroom flat in Pisa.
We then stayed in La Spezia from where we drove to the Mediterranean coast at Portovenere. I watched and took photos of a thunderstorm crashing over the mountainous shoreline. We took the train to each of the five villages in magnificent Cinque Terre National Park.
Our final lodging was a mountain retreat in Brosso near Torino where my daughter and I climbed a 4700-foot mountain while watching paragliders launch towards the valley below.
The Italians are warm, friendly people, eager to connect with travelers. But oh my gosh!, put them behind the wheel of a car and they turn into maniacs! I’ve never seen such antics; particularly frightening was the double-line passing on blind corners. We only saw one accident, however, as the Italian drivers are totally attentive; nobody is on their cell phone.
And they love their wheels! Some of the iconic names on the road, in bicycling (Colnago, Bianchi, Campagnolo, and Cinelli), motorcycling (Ducati, Moto Guzzi, MV Augusta, and Benelli), and cars (Lamborghini, Maserati, and Ferrari) hail from Italy.
The roads are in generally good shape, with ample warning signs when under construction. The default interchange is the roundabout, and they work great, always keeping traffic moving. We should emulate that!
My daughter navigated using Google Maps on her cell phone and we never took a wrong turn.
There are fees for many things we get for free, like public toilets, parking, and highway tolls. On our longest day on the road, the cost for the autostrada (equivalent to our Interstates) was 26.50 Euro (around $31).
Italians are proud people with a fascinating heritage in food (especially wine, cheese, and olive oil in the region we visited), culture, religion, science, fashion, art, and music. Sculptor Michelangelo, inventor Leonardo da Vinci, explorer Christopher Columbus, astronomer Galileo Galalei, luthier Antonio Stradivari, painter Raphael, philosopher Cicero, explorer Amerigo Vespucci (who America was named after), singer Luciano Pavarotti, scientist Enrico Fermi, and many others are household names. Their culture is ancient and monuments, relics, and art keep the culture alive.
Most people spoke some or fluent English, although the signs (other than “STOP”) were in Italian. I learned a few words and had fun using them.
Like most vacations, we had a few minor mishaps. But overall, it was a wonderful experience to a beautiful place. I returned wanting to do more things, go more places, and experience more of the world. I hope to do a trip of a lifetime every year!
Michael Abraham is a businessman and author. He was raised in Christiansburg and lives in Blacksburg.