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Churches and art
Palermo (Italy) to Venice (Italy), October 2014

We have achieved our main goal in Italy. It was our wish to see Sicily we finally succeeded. We must admit that we had higher expectations about Sicily’s landscape. Of course, the scenery is beautiful, but not spectacular enough to justify the long trip to this island. But Sicily has some great cities on offer. Palermo and Catania are still real Sicilian cities with interesting historic centres and the dynamic Italian daily life (see the photo impression of the Sicilian cities).

Now we were here in Italy, we loved to see more of the country. One other destination that was high on our wish list is Naples and nearby Pompeii. Naples is the second city in Italy and the eternal rival of the Italian capital Rome. Naples is much poorer and that is evident everywhere. The streets are full with overflowing garbage containers, beggars, walls full of graffiti and African illegal migrants trying to scrape a living together. But the city has something that Rome does not have: the feeling that you're in a real Italian city. Of course there are also tourists in Naples, but the numbers are still relatively small. The commercial activities in the town centre are still focused on the local people, and not the tourists. And that makes Naples a real Italian town and in our opinion the most interesting city in Italy to visit if you want to experience the real Italian life (see the photo impression of Naples).

The busy Grand Canal in Venice

A half day's drive to the north is Rome. A beautiful city with a history that is unparalleled. It's incredible to see what the city has to offer to visitors. We mention a few: the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain and of course the Vatican. What is so special about Rome is that many art is still visible to everyone without having to buy an expensive ticket and stand in line for hours. Some of the masterpieces you can see for free are: Michelangelo's fabulous images 'Pietà' in St. Peter's Cathedral and the tomb he made for Pope Julius II in the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli. And also frescoes by masters like Caravaggio, Raphael, Giotto and again Michelangelo adorn the walls of many churches that are scattered around the city and are free to visit. But Rome also has its downside: mass tourism. We have never visited a city that attracts so many tourists as Rome does. It started for us already on the campsite in the outskirts of Rome where hundreds of schoolchildren occupied mobile homes during their school trip to Rome. The historic centre of Rome is now an open air museum from where Italian life is completely squeezed out by tourism. Everything, absolutely everything in the centre of Rome is nowadays related to tourism (read here include our experience of our visit to the Vatican Museum).

And because we did not have had enough yet of churches, basilicas and monasteries, we drove after our visit to Rome to Assisi; you probably know: the city of St. Francis of Assisi. Saint Francis was born in 1181 as the son of a rich merchant, but preferred the simple life as a monk than a life in richness. He founded the order of the Franciscans and preached the rest of his life for a greater equality between the poorer and the pope. After Assisi we visited the cities of Siena and Florence. We didn’t really enjoy neither of these cities. The extreme crowds and the fact that nothing can be visited without having to buy an expensive ticket made these two cities the two least enjoyable cities we visited in Italy. We liked for example to see Michelangelo’s famous sculpture ‘David’ which is exhibited in the museum called 'Accademia' in Florence. But an entrance fee of 15 Euro, a queue of several hours and then sharing the museum with thousands of other people is not something we were looking forward to. So, we skipped this opportunity.

Us in San Marino

To escape the churches and art for a while, we drove to San Marino, after the Vatican and Monaco the smallest country in Europe. There is not a lot is to see here, but the location of San Marino on top of Mount Titano is spectacular with great views. San Marino has even made it to the UNESCO World Heritage list, because it is the oldest republic in the world, and the only former city state on the peninsular was not incorporated in the Italian Republic. In San Marino, we unfortunately said also goodbye to the perfect weather we had. Until that time we have had super weather in Italy. From San Marino on it was different. The mercury at daytime seldom rose above 16 degrees Celsius and at night the mercury in our tent even dropped to about 5-7 degrees.

Our final destination in Italy was Venice. We downgraded our expectations significantly because we knew that Venice is one of the most visited tourist destinations in Italy. But in many respects, it was not that bad. It was almost November and that means the number of tourists has decreased compared to the high season. We also liked the fact that it is still possible to see a lot of Venetian art without having to dig deep into your pockets. And that is special, because the Venetians are undoubtedly the masters in the emptying the pockets of the tourists. Public boat transportation in the city is outrageously expensive (7 Euro one way) and a visit to a public toilet costs the appalling amount of Euro 1.50 (!). However, the Chorus Pass is a good investment. For 12 Euro you get access to 16 churches of the city where you can admire the works of Venetian master artists such as Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto in peace.

All in all we enjoyed ourselves a lot in Italy. It is truly a beautiful country with a wealth of history and art. The flip side of the coin is that mass tourism can have a negative impact on your travel experience. You can probably call a visit to Italy in the high season an expensive disaster. But you can roughly say that mass tourism is limited to all destinations north of Rome (Rome included). So if you stay outside this region in the high season, you will probably be fine. Our city destination ranking in Italy is: 1. Naples, 2. Palermo, 3. Rome, 4. Venice, 5. Catania, 6. Florence 7. Siena and finally 8. Syracuse.

Crowds in Pompeï with the Vesuvius Volcano in the background
The old town of Siena
View on Florence
Beggar in Venice
Atmospheric restaurants in a less touristy part of Venice
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