A car gives us freedom; a chance to escape the familiar and breathe the air of new places. Americans have often had a continuous sort of love affair with the car and the concept of the road trip; a journey, taking the scenic route, windows down, music in the air, driving on the great, boundless highways that interconnect one adventure to the next.
After spending 5 days in Venice, we decided to rent a car and go on an Italy road trip before meeting my sister, brother-in-law, and niece in Cinque Terre. There were several sites and cities that we wanted to see along the way. We had no “official plans”; as in no accommodations were booked and we did not know exactly how long we were going to stay in each city. We started in Venice and drove towards Padua. We had a car, our bags, some snacks for the road, and each other (and of course Matt had some podcasts and EDM downloaded for us to listen to).
The first thing I should mention, and I write this with no disrespect, is that Italian drivers are dangerous (in my opinion)! They switch lanes quickly, blare their horns at every chance they get, and constantly tailgate. Did I mention the majority of Italian roads are cliff-top roads and the city roads are heavily congested with traffic, roundabouts, and funny signs that are all in Italian! Do not forget to mix in semi drivers and drivers who are on scooters (both on the highways and city streets) into this chaos.
There are a couple of things I did notice while watching my amazing husband, Matt, navigate this crazy world of Italian driving that I would like to mention here in case you ever find yourself wanting to rent a car in Italy or cruise around the countryside as we did for several days and go on an Italy road trip. When a driver uses a turn signal this typically indicates that he/she will be turning “now”. As soon as that turn signal turns on there is most likely a turn just right around the corner that the driver will be taking it in two seconds flat. The same holds true for changing lanes. If the driver indicates (with his/her turn signal) that he/she is changing lanes, yielding for other drivers is not an option, just make sure you are out of the way. Keep in mind, “fast lane change”. Another thing I noticed is that the majority of rules do not apply. Let me explain this one more clearly. Stop signs typically mean “roll through”, a no parking sign will most likely have a parked car in front of it, and the painted lines on the roads are ignored (as in it is not uncommon to see a car driving in the middle of the highway taking up two lanes or passing a car in a “no pass” zone). Also, if you hesitate to do anything (lane change, turn, park, etc.) you will find a driver going around you or stealing your parking spot. In the end, we both got some great laughs at the aggressiveness and confidence that can be found throughout the Italian streets.
After driving for about 45 minutes we arrived in Padua, Italy, where we visited the Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua, one of the eight recognized international shrines in the world (this would be our second of four international shrines that we would visit on our “international shrine tour” as Matt called it, having already visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal). This is truly one of the most beautiful basilicas we have ever visited; it is so richly decorated with artwork and sculptures. Inside the basilica rests the body of Saint Anthony. On his tomb and along the walls outside his tomb tell the history and stories of his miracles. There are photos of people healed placed on the walls of the basilica expressing their gratitude to St. Anthony. There is also a chapel of relics located inside the basilica that contains the fully intact tongue and vocal cords of St. Anthony.
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After exploring the Basilica of Saint Anthony and walking around the quaint town and admiring all the colors of the street markets we had worked up an appetite. Instead of grabbing a lunch at one of the crowded cafes or restaurants in Padua, we opted to get back on the road and head towards our next stop, Verona, and find a bite to eat along the way.
For those of you who are unaware of the riposo, also known as the midday siesta in Italy, trying to find a restaurant during certain business hours can be risky. During riposo, most Italian businesses close from 1430 until 1600 with restaurants closing until 1900. Typically lunch in Italy is from noon until 1430 with dinner starting around 1900 (with most Italians dining around 2000-2130). If you get a late start to your day and try and find lunch during riposo, you will most likely get stuck dining on gelato or a pastry if you can find an open cafe. There are some restaurants that stay open during riposo but finding them is like finding a needle in a haystack. Oh, and if it is a Sunday or Monday, most businesses, in general, are closed all day, including the supermarkets. So keep this in mind on a Saturday when you are running low on groceries!
After driving around for quite some time (we were now in Vicenza) trying to find an open restaurant (by now it was 1415), Matt decided to pull over and ask a couple sitting on their front porch if they knew of a restaurant in town or nearby that was currently open for lunch. Luckily the couple could understand and speak English. The man pointed in front of his house, across the street, to what appeared to be a small vineyard. He told us that there was a restaurant that “may be open”. We thanked him, locked up our car, and headed that way. We walked about 100 yards and stumbled upon a small B&B that was hidden amongst the vineyards. We entered and asked if they were still serving lunch. The hostess replied that they had stopped serving lunch at 1400, it was now 1430. We asked if we could use her restrooms and she agreed that we could. As we were about to leave, the hostess approached us and told us that she had spoken to the chef and we could stay for lunch if we would like. Score! We had the most delicious farm to table lunch outside in their “magical vineyard garden”. Before we left, we got to meet the chef and the hostess gave us a complimentary bottle of Rosé wine from their vineyard. People are so nice.
For our third international shrine and oddly close in proximity to our “magical vineyard garden” lunch, we visited the Church of St. Mary of Mount Berico. According to the legend, the Blessed Virgin appeared to a peasant woman by the name of Vicenza twice during a time when the people of Veneto were suffering from the plague. It was promised to the people by the Blessed Virgin that if they built a church on top of the hill where she appeared, she would rid them of the plague. The people of Vicenza kept their promise to the Blessed Virgin and built the church in 3 months time.
One hour drive later we arrived near the first place we would stay. It was located in Illasi just outside of Verona in a hilly area completely surrounded by vineyards. On our way to our Airbnb, we saw a huge castle in the distance. We decided to go and check it out. What a hidden gem we found!
We ended up in a quaint little town called Soave. The town itself was a small wine town, enclosed by medieval walls, and surrounded by vineyards. There were B&B’s, cafes, restaurants, small wine shops, and boutique stores. We texted our host to let him know we would be arriving later than anticipated and he told us we could stop by the town’s local wine shop and get 15% off of our purchase if we would like to buy wine. We explored the little town of Soave and we did just that; two bottles of wine and a bottle of champagne later we were again on our way to our final destination for the evening.
We finally arrived in Illasi. Our room was amazing! We had our own private room overlooking the vineyards (kitchenette, wifi, and private bathroom). Matteo, our host, a lawyer from Italy, greeted us with fresh garden salads, homemade olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and red wine from the vineyard. Later that evening we met two other couples, both from the U.S. (Seattle and New Jersey), who also were staying at the vineyard. We stayed up all night talking about traveling over great wine, which by the way was flowing unlimited from the wine barrels at our Airbnb.
From Illasi it was time for us to go to our next destination, Loreto, but first, lunch. After a night of drinking wine into the early morning hours with our newly made friends, we were off to what you would call a late start, and we would have to find food during the dreaded riposo. On our way to Loreto, we drove back through Soave where we tried to find a local restaurant that was open for lunch. It was 1430 and with everything in the town appearing to be closed, we stumbled upon this small, family-run restaurant still open for business. We were the only customers in the entire restaurant but they were so happy to serve us. We had an amazing caprese salad and Italian roasted vegetables to start and shared a tomato linguini entree as our main course.
Our next destination was Loreto, Italy, home of the Basilica della Santa Casa; where the house in which the Blessed Virgin Mary is enshrined and believed to have lived, our fourth and last international shrine we would visit (for now; we plan to visit more as we tour this beautiful world). Many devotees believe that the house was flown by angels four times from Jerusalem to Trsat, Croatia to Recanati, Italy and then Loreto.
The drive from Soave to Loreto was about 4 hours. We decided to look on Airbnb and try and find a place to stay. Maybe a vineyard again or a quiet place on the countryside? We reached out to a couple of hosts who did not respond back to our inquiry. Realizing that we most likely would not stay in an Airbnb due to the late notice, we started to look at hotel options. We stopped along the coast in a little beach town in Loreto to watch the sunset, people watch, and figure out where we would stay for the next couple of days. We found a hotel nearby in Castelfidardo on booking.com, reasonably priced, and it appeared to have one hotel room available for the night. When we arrived at the hotel around 2130, the front door was locked and no one was answering our knocks or rings from the doorbell. There was a phone number on the front door to call so Matt gave it a whirl. The person on the other end answered the phone in Italian. Matt, unable to speak or understand Italian asked the person in English if they had a room available for the night. The person continued to speak on the phone in Italian. I quickly pulled my phone out so we could try and use Google Translate so Matt could get through his phone conversation. I typed into Google Translate, “Do you have a room available for tonight” and Matt read and said back to the person on the other end, “Avete una stanza disponibile per stasera” in his broken Italian. The person clearly did not understand what Matt was asking so Matt had to repeat himself several times. We both had to maintain our composure through our giggles. The person eventually told us no.
Plan B. It was now dark, 2200, and we had no place to stay for the evening. Matt quickly did a Google search for hotels nearby and made a quick phone call again. He repeated the same phrase in Italian he had two minutes prior, “Avete una stanza disponibile per stasera”, this time no giggling, then said, “Five minutes”. Five minutes later we arrived at La Valle del Poeta.
La Valle del Poeta was such an amazing find. Located in Castelfidardo, this family-owned B&B was very unique. Each room had its own beautiful view overlooking the Italian countryside. We could actually see the Basilica della Santa Casa off in the distance from the window in our room. The property was gorgeous; rose bushes, vineyards off in the distance, and at the golden hour the gardens would light up from the sunset. The owners also had a small farm with 3 goats and several dogs; all of which were pets. There was even a wood-fired oven on the property! One evening, at Matt’s request, the owners arranged for the local pizza shop owner to come and teach us how to make real Italian pizza in their wood-fired oven. I think I ate more that one evening than I usually consume in a week! There were also several spectacular beaches located just within a 15-minute drive of the B&B; all secluded, white pebbled, and ideal for relaxing in the sun. During our stay, we visited both Numana and Sirolo Beach.
Assisi, Italy was the next stop on our Italy road trip adventure. The drive would be about one hour and 40 minutes. When we arrived in Assisi, we felt as if we had stepped into a painting. This hilly, medieval town, surrounded by countryside, forests, and olive groves was chock-full of churches, cathedrals, basilicas, restaurants, cafes, and boutique shops that line its cobblestone streets. Of course, the most famous and awe-inspiring attraction is the Basilica of St. Francis, the very reason we ventured to Assisi. The basilica has both an upper and lower church; each with its very own unique artistic influence that can be seen in the frescoes hanging on the walls. In addition to the artwork, the lower church houses the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi.
From Assisi, we made a quick 2-day pit stop in Florence to recharge and work online before heading to Pisa. I should mention here that if you want to drive to Florence, parking is impossible to find. We stayed at an Airbnb that provided private parking so we were able to park our rental car for the weekend without problems but once we parked it we did not drive our car at all.
On our last stop before Cinque Terre, we stopped in Pisa, Italy to see the famous leaning tower of Pisa, return our rental car, and catch the train to Cinque Terre. The tower itself is spectacular. The fact that it leans and does not fall is mind-boggling. After walking around for about 10 seconds we quickly started to realize that this place of wonder was overtaken by hordes of tourists posing in the most ridiculous positions. Although I enjoyed seeing the tower, I have to admit I spent the majority of my time gawking at the various poses and wondering to myself, “is she posting that to Instagram or Facebook or both?” The poses were endless. There were people pretending to hold up the tower, push the tower down, pinch the tower, hold the tower in their hand, pretend the tower was an appendage growing from their body… I could go on. There were people jumping in front of the tower and lying on the ground in front of it. If you tried to get a plain photo of yourself in front of the tower like we did, there were tourists in your photograph jumping, pushing, and leaning in the background.
The only road trip I had been on prior to this Italy road trip was when Matt and I drove from Las Vegas to Indianapolis in 2007 when we moved him back to Indianapolis. That trip was 30 hours in a car, packed so full there was no room for another item unless we started to strap things to the luggage rack, and our two dogs. I used to complain about that trip saying that it was not the most fun thing I have ever done. Funny thing is, looking back, I now realize, it is not about arriving at your destination, it is all the wild, crazy stuff that happens along the way and who you have beside you that makes your adventure fun.
Traveled July 2017