Italy & Switzerland: Dec 05 - Jan 06

Landing in Venice on Christmas day, we headed south to Pisa, with its impressive leaning tower. Both of us agreed it was far better in person and much larger than expected. We shelled out the 30 euros to go up it, which was a mixed bag. Our hostel, which was possibly the worst of the trip, had classical frescos painted on the ceilings of the rooms.

Continuing south the next day, we decided to take it easy and enjoy the coastline. We settled for the night in a sleepy resort town mainly used by people flooding out of Rome in the summer. Porto Santo Stefano, along with three other towns, is situated on a mountain island (really a peninsula) and is attached the mainland by three small roads built onto sandbars. The following morning we did a panoramic route around the outside of the mountain, which was nice and had some spectacular views. We even took our little Ford Fiesta off-roading up some dirt tracks hoping to get to the top of the mountain. No luck, and really quite terrifying in places.

Our next stop was in the heart of Abuzzo National Park, which protects a very scenic stretch of the Apennine Mountains (Southern Alps). On route, we somehow got off the wrong exit in Rome and found ourselves driving in circles for an hour in traffic that gives NYC a run for it’s money. We did get to see the Coliseum twice by car though. Eventually we figured it out with the help of some friendly locals and arrived in Pescasseroli, a lovely little town nestled among the mountains. We stayed two nights in two very nice hotels, one of which was a lovely 15th century Italian Palazzo. On our first full day there, we decided to go for a hike, which ended up as a 6-hour climb to a peak in knee high snow, blistering winds, and a setting sun. And as a rebel Boy Scout, we did it in our sneakers.

From Pescasseroli, we continued our drive south, this time heading towards the famed Amalfi Coast. A brief stop over in Naples for some shopping turned into a night-long stay. I wish I could relate to you how it felt to drive and navigate in the city, but I’m not sure the English language is capable of describing it. All I can tell you is that the system is either extraordinarily complex, so much so that I can’t comprehend it, or extremely simple. The latter approach being to ignore everything (people, motorbikes, bicycles, traffic lights, signs, one way streets, lanes, etc.) except the car in front of you. Another item of note in Naples was our huge and tasty dinner, which came to 17 euros including two carafes of house wine. Thank you “Let’s Go Italy” authors.

We made it to the Amalfi Coast the following day, settling at a cozy little town called Priano, where we stayed for two nights. Our first night included bingo at the local bar, where half the town seemed to be hiding. The final night was new years, and we joined in the local celebrations, which included fireworks, live music, and dancing. Lots of fun. We got to see the entire stretch of the Amalfi coast, but fog often dampened the experience. We visited Mt Vesuvius twice, and hit the closed park gate both times 100 meters from the crater. The first time we visited, it had snowed, which must be somewhat unusual because the road was packed full of people building snowmen onto their cars. We indulged and built one too. We also used Priano as a base for visiting Pompeii, which was very cool.

First day of 2006, and it was time to start heading north. Orvieto was the destination. We lucked out as the city was just wrapping up its month long Jazz Festival. We got reservations in a wonderful and packed restaurant with live music. We spent half a day exploring the town, visiting the underground cave network, gothic cathedral, and incredible, double helix, renaissance well!

We departed Orvieto in late afternoon and didn’t decide where we were going to stay until the sun had set. A flick through our trusty lonely planet book landed us in Siena. I was getting a bit tired of Italian food, and so we had a quick kebab and had dinner at a Chinese restaurant! Blasphemy I know. Overall, I felt Siena was overrated.

Our final push to Venice was quick. We returned our rental car and stayed one night in the city center. Navigating Venice is quite a task. The city seemed deserted in places, perhaps because it was low season. We visited Santo Marco’s (St. Marks) plaza and cathedral - both very impressive and picturesque. Venice as a city certainly has a unique charm with its maze of canals and bridges.

That night, we stayed in a hotel on the outskirts of Venice and left the following day for Switzerland. We were off to meet Stacey’s family for relaxation and skiing in Gstaad, a ski resort in the Swiss Alps. The whole area was very pretty, and a totally different feel from Italy. The traditional Swiss chalets were very cute. An overnight train 7 days later brought us back to Venice, where we caught our flight home.

© Chris Harrison