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Returning from Italy - fewer warm fuzzies

We returned from a trip to Italy about 3 weeks ago. It was our first return to Italy in 13 years. My husband and I traveled there in 2005 and it was my very first intro to EU and we have returned to EU many times since. On this trip, I brought my sister and her boyfriend. This was their first time going to EU. I had high expectations to have her experience all the wonders of Italy and relive how it all started and why we fell in love with EU travel - but it felt like we kept coming up short. It started in Rome and it was HOT HOT HOT! Everyone was sweating through all our clothes! (It was Sept 22). That’s fine but then it was soooo much more crowded everywhere we went. Those two things made it hard to get into the experience. The Vatican was insane - so much more crowded then when I was there. I had my online reservations, so we did well getting in the museum but then the line to get into St Peters was crazy long and then inside they had the Peita all covered up and wooden barricades stopping you from going down all the naves. What a huge disappointment. It was a Monday....is that the reason? Do they do that for crowd control on Mondays? When we left - we took a taxi to the Spanish steps. We MIGHT have fallen victim to the money scam of switching bills - I don’t know for sure. We paid too much for that cab for sure - but this guy packed 6 of us in his cab and we agreed to the price but then I think my husband handed a 50E forward and things got confusing as if he couldn’t make change. He handed it back and my sister paid 40E and when everything was done - my husband had 10E. The cabbie might have swapped on him. We don’t know for sure. Our last day there we went to the Borghese and that was amazing. Loved it so much. Rick Steve’s tip to start on the second floor to avoid crowds was GOLD! The art and the stories of how the art was acquired were intriguing. One of my top experiences in EU.
After Rome, we went to Siena. There we met up with friends from Spain and France. We at a Florentine steak one night - holy crap was that good. Thank god I shared with my husband. It was beyond huge. We also did a wine tour with Roberto Becci’s company. Very good. Phenomenal wines in Brunello region. I forgot about all the stairs to climb in both Rome and Siena. Whew.
After Siena we went to Venice for just two nights. I struggled with the boat transp. I wanted to take the “quick” #2 boat up the Grand Canal but we went around the backside instead! What a huge disappointment and mistake on my part! I didn’t even know you could go any other way but up the GC! St Marks was awesome as was the Friar church. But the crowds and pouring rain put a damper on doing very much there. My sister did not get her gondola ride she wanted. And the chiccitti bar I sooooo badly wanted to return to was to packed to ever get into. When we left Venice - we struggled HARD to find the right boat to get us back. Three boat stops at San zaccaria and we were running back and forth to each one getting conflicting information! Seriously it would have been comical how many times we hauled our butts across those bridges if I wasn’t in a panic we were going to miss our train!
After that we ended in Munich for Oktoberfest (our 4th time). We took a gorgeous train ride through Austria to get there. Awesome train accommodations. Oktoberfest was a blast. Despite our boys best attempt to “pace themselves” we were back in our hotel by 8:30pm the first night. :)
So overall a good trip but as I reflect back, it feels like I struggled to have my group experience something truely Italian. Where they felt transported so far away from home. I think the crowds were the biggest issue. And don’t get me wrong, I understand the product of high expectations and how it can never measure up. I just hope i can return again and have a different experience if I plan low season maybe?

Posted by
8397 posts

Thanks for the Trip Report! I'm sorry it wasn't all you wanted it to be. I don't tolerate heat and that would have impacted me as well. I think it is also difficult to be the "tour guide". As the planner you were comparing all your plans to your previous trip and wanting others to feel the same special-ness you did that time. That can never be replicated. For one thing, you and your sis are different people for another, as you found out - things change.

The one thing to keep in mind about "low season" travel anywhere is that it's low season for a reason. Mostly weather makes things less attractive but shorter days can have an impact as well.

I appreciate your taking the time to write up and post your experiences. It's a reminder for all of us who wind up planning trips for others.

Posted by
26030 posts

wooden barricades stopping you from going down all the naves

Was it by any chance early in the morning or mid to late afternoon? If so, you probably ran into the barriers between tourists and the faithful which are put up before a service so that the faithful can have a bit of separation and yet still allow the tourists to wander most of the Basilica. Usually after the service they are rolled back out of the way.

Posted by
521 posts

Two more quick additions. The audio guide at the Doge’s palace was horrible! Rick Steve’s described it as “a bit dry” and that was an understatement! Please Rick - make a Doge Palace audio guide STAT! :)
Second - I highly recommend this restaurant in Venice - Antica Osteria Ardenghi. Great food, great atmosphere, super nice gentleman (owner?) and he gave us all these fabulous extras with our meal. We felt very well cared for. He recommended a local wine that had a little sparkle to it. Nice experience.

Re: the barricades at the Vatican - it was probably around 1pm on a Monday. I was prepared for there to be extra people but not to be shut out of certain areas. The Pieta was hidden by curtains for no reason that I could tell. I didn’t sense that a service was about to start - but maybe?

Posted by
681 posts

It sounds like overall your trip was great. Eventually, you may laugh about your misadventures with the bridge and boats in Venice. I always plan our trips and sometimes (right now it is Iceland and Scotland in May 2019). I think I work so hard on it that when something goes wrong I am even more disappointed than the others in the group. How did your sister feel about the trip since it was her first time?

Posted by
12594 posts

I just hope i can return again and have a different experience if I
plan low season maybe?

Amy, speaking for Rome, I don't think you have to go during low season to have the experience you're looking for, although I'm sure it would help. More accurately, I think your issue was simply going to the most-visited attractions during high season. A short stay may also have contributed to the crowd exhaustion: how many nights did you have in the city?

Our last return to Rome was high season (May), we stayed nearly a week, and skipped almost all of the most overrun stuff (e.g. Vatican Museums, Colosseum) we'd seen before and just walked through a few (e.g. Trevi, Spanish Steps) early in morning en route to other things. As I know you've already been to those too, there's no need to do them again: there's a LOT in Rome that fewer tourists venture to, especially bigger tour groups that tend to hit the top 3 or 4. We've ambled into some fascinating churches and been practically the only ones there! Same for further reaches of the Appia Antica, one early morning, and other random corners. We've had more bodies around us in other spots but not, say, like the Vatican Museums so no problem.

Longer stays can also make such a big difference! A first-timer going 3 nights during high season and cramming the Vatican, Colosseum/Forum/Palatine, Pantheon, etc, into a couple of days will find themselves squarely in the mob all day, every day. That can be REALLY wearing so building in time to explore other avenues or just to sit with a wine/beer/beverage and people watch can ease the stress. Did for us, anyway, and we'll be doing that again.

So take heart? The Rome you're missing is still there: you just have to find her :O)

Posted by
13 posts

My husband and I just returned yesterday from 16 days in Sicily, Calabria, and Sorrento, with a day in Napoli for the National Archeological Museum and some serious pizza. We flew into and out of Rome, and rented a car for most of our trip this time. More on that in a future post.
We knew from a bit of advance weather research for October in the areas we planned to visit to expect some amount of rain. A good umbrella for each of us and rainproof, windproof jackets turned out to be the most worthwhile additions to our “packing light” scheme. We had serious, sustained downpours in both Segesta and visiting the temples at Agrigento. We had to make an attitude adjustment and just do things regardless of the weather. At the end of those days It helped to get a nice meal at a local, friendly place and kick back with some warming local wine, or cold beer if one prefers. Everywhere we went, people were very welcoming, and happy to get into a conversation.
I approached our day trip to Napoli with some apprehension about pickpocketing or petty crime. But all went well and I never felt unsafe the entire time we were in the city, though we were always very aware of our surroundings. The one thing that struck me and truly saddened me about Naples was that, here is a city full of world class sites, mind blowing art, architecture, parks, history, culture, theater, and so on, and everywhere you look, all these beautiful places are defaced with graffiti, and not always the artistic type, but much more commonly, the trashy, ugly stuff. I do wish the Italian government, or whatever subdivision of it is responsible, would take its responsibility more seriously and clean up the city, then maintain its beauty by funding whatever is necessary to do so.
Returning to Rome after a nine year absence was a bit of a shock, though it probably shouldn’t have been. We walked to the Trevi Fountain at dusk from the Via Firenze area and were nearly overwhelmed by the tourist hordes and hustlers overrunning the streets leading to the Trevi Piazza, as well as the area immediately surrounding the Trevi Fountain. Maybe my memory is faulty, but I simply do not remember things being so crowded and chaotic, even on visits in the peak of summer.
We did walk back to Ristorante da Giovanni, past the Church of Santa Maria Della Vittoria (home of Bernini’s St Teresa in ecstasy), where we had a delicious, memorable dinner. Both the owner, Fabrizio, and our waiter, Luciano, took such great, personal care of us(as we noticed them doing with all their guests). Just that experience made the rain and the crowds seem worth dealing with.
On this trip we met some warm , welcoming, interesting people, saw lots of marvelous sights, enjoyed great food, wines, and pastries, had lots of interesting experiences, even enjoyed a full moon over Sorrento! So what’s a little (or a lot of) rain and some crowding in comparison?
I’d go back in a heartbeat!

Posted by
1952 posts

Me, too, Sonia....any time! Amy, I am sorry you were disappointed in your experiences. But aren't you lucky to have been able to go at all? Maybe you'll give it another try someday and it will be more to what you so fondly remember. It's not at all easy to become responsible for your travel companions happiness. Pam is right; the first time for nearly anything is wondrous and those feelings just won't be "replicated". Thank you for posting your experiences.

Posted by
2645 posts

Hey, Amy. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I was in Rome for a few days in May 2015. I particularly remember oppressive crowds at the Vatican Museum. I have to admit that by the time I reached the Sistine Chapel, I was thinking, "Yeah, that's cool. I want to get out of here." Even though it was our first time in Rome, my travel companion and I did what Kathy said. We hit big things early or late and sprinkled in some "minor sites" like Aqueduct Park and the Appian Way that got us well outside the city center and allowed us to walk through a more typical Rome neighborhood while still seeing cool stuff (aqueducts!). I would definitely go back!

Posted by
503 posts

Amy, I know exactly how you felt. 13 years away makes a huge difference. The crowds have increased unbelievably in Europe and for that reason there are place I don't care to visit again, even thought I love them. Florence and Venice are two of them. They are just so crowded that I can't enjoy the cities. I'm not even sure when off-season travel is anymore. A few years ago I was in Prague in October, which used to be considered "shoulder season". It was so, so crowded, I was amazed. I asked a local tour guide about this and she said that October is one of the busiest months because everyone thinks it isn't and they all come then! I suppose the middle of January would be less crowded, but not sure that is a time I want to travel.

Posted by
11266 posts

Amy, I agree that the vaporetti can be quite confusing; I find them as difficult as the New York subways are for first-time visitors. To make it even harder, the Venetians like to change the numbers every year or two, so one's guidebook is often out of date.

And while the points about the exponential increase in tourist numbers, and the fact that you went to the most popular sights at high season, are true, if it's any comfort, I had a miserable experience at the Vatican Museums in September 1994! Hoards of tense people, all just trying to get to the Sistine Chapel as fast as possible, angry that there's no direct access without going through the whole rest of the museums. Then the buildup of noise, followed by the guards trying to shush everyone, followed by the buildup of noise again. The tension was so high, I couldn't wait to leave. If I ever go again, I'll take one of the early entrance tours; if I can't do one of these, I won't go.

My sister also had rain for much of her time in Venice. For her too, it put a literal damper on the experience, and she always just shrugs when people say how much they love Venice; she has no desire to return (even when it stopped raining, she just didn't feel the magic so many others do).

If you want to return to Italy, one way to have a better experience is to go to places that aren't on the "popular" list. Stay away from Rome, Venice, Florence, Cinque Terre, etc. Look at places like Cremona, or Bressanone, or Torino, or Ravenna, or Ferrara - places not everyone has heard of, that bug bus tours and cruise ship excursions don't go to, but that are still very worthwhile.

Posted by
475 posts

Thanks for your trip report. We were in Rome for the first time in early September. Very, very hot. Very, very crowded. We took the Vatican tour that was on the Vatican website. Could not believe how packed it was. Our tour guide told us it is even more crowded during "peak season". Can't imagine getting any more people in there. When we finally got to the Sistine Chapel, it was so packed you could hardly get in there, let alone enjoy it.

We also took the Scavi tour and enjoyed it. Colosseum tour was crowded, but not quite as bad.

Yes, we are very grateful that we could go to Rome, but wouldn't go again in September. I know so many people really like Rome. There were five of us and no one left thinking we would love to go back.

Posted by
1 posts

Amy,
My wife and I returned from our second trip in four years to Italy. Both trips were started in September, this year we arrived in Rome on the 18th and I can tell you that it is just hot in Rome in September, there is no way around it. I think that Mr. Steves advice about taking 2 or three hours in the middle of the afternoon and relaxing/napping in your hotel room then stretching out your sightseeing/exploring into the evening is great advice. On your post I didn't see where you're from so If it's an area with cooler temps and lower humidity, I can see that it would be uncomfortable for you. I live in Fort Lauderdale so 84F with 65% humidity is decent weather for me. As for the crowding, I think that so many people around the world have come to realize (myself included) what a wonderful country Italy is to visit and we have to be flexible and/or creative to see the things we want to see. We were in Venice early October so I know what you mean about San Marco square, Rialto bridge, ect. crowds; we just don't visit those areas at certain times of the day. There are so many little treasures to see on the back alleys and waterways. And the weather.... well, it's hard to do anything about that but at least you and I didn't get the floods that the Venitians got this past week. But visiting Italy is like the old fishing bumper sticker, " a bad day of fishing is still better than a good day at work." I'm sorry that you were a little disappointed about the trip but you were with your sister and I bet she had a great time so don't feel bad about it.

Posted by
11798 posts

Personally, I love Rome and south in November, Venice and Florence areas in October. Earlier the temperatures aren't comfortable and the crowds are too much.

Posted by
65 posts

Thanks for the report. I just returned from a two week Overseas Adventure Travel tour of Sicily en't ding on November 5 and I'm glad we went as late in the season as we did to avoid being too hot. Also, I was afraid that Palermo was going to be as crowded as Rome - it wasn't at all. I found Palermo to be much less crowded, easy to get around on foot and even safe. Of course the smaller towns were even nicer.

Posted by
38 posts

I understand how the OP is feeling. One thing I have learned about traveling is that you have to relax and let things happen.

About 10 years ago, we took a trip to Rome, spent 9 days there, and I came home feeling kind of disappointed. But the more I look back on that trip, the more I realize, Rome was absolutely incredible. So why did I have this feeling of disappointment? I chalk it up to overplanning, and putting too much pressure on myself and the wife to stick to timetables and see everything. Plus, while I was there, constantly thinking, "This should be amazing. Is it amazing yet? When is it going to be amazing?"
I think sometimes, if you go looking for something amazing, you will be disappointed, but if you just relax, lower your expectations, and allow "it" to happen without looking for it, it will happen.

Posted by
11798 posts

Sounds like you've been through all those annoying reasons I don't love Italy (like Italy because there's so much to see, but there are too many let down moments to love it).

It's too general of statement, but I often feel Italians see visitors the same way carnival barkers see people at carnivals. Potential marks and nothing more. Customer service standards are incredibly lax and the customer is pretty much never right. Complaints about poor service, lost reservations, no towels, lost luggage, improper billing, etc. earn you a shoulder shrug and nothing more.

The bill changing is a common deal; Italians are happy to take advantage of tourists whenever they can. The only thing you can do is always be ready with exactly what you want to give them.

Some people love Italy for these quirks. If so, good for them. I like Italy despite the bad.

One general rule I think will help is never allow yourself to get in a hurry. Hurry creates mistakes, succumbing to scams, lost items and missed connections. Better to have too much extra time than be in a hurry.

As far as weather goes, I think October is really nice for northern Italy. I wouldn't want to be in Rome, or further south, before November. The crowds get more reasonable (I don't think there's ever no crowds) and you'd be much more comfortable.

Posted by
224 posts

Thank you for posting you experience, Amy, and I’m sorry your experience wasn’t what you hoped it would be. This makes me worry a bit. I went to Italy in Oct/Nov 2007 and I remember it was somewhat busy at the main sites of the major cities, but not unbearably so (except the Vatican and some parts of Venice). I’m planning to go with my husband sometime in the next 2 years (he’s never been) and when I start thinking and planning I feel like I'm going be trying to recreate my last trip. I need to resist doing that somehow. It’ll be about 15 years later than my first trip there. Nothing is the same, least of all me. We can’t get back what once was, and that’s ok, because we’re lucky to be able to go once, let alone multiple times. I’ll have to keep reminding myself this.

Posted by
1013 posts

Europe is definitely more crowded now that Asia and India have disposable income and the number of cruise ships and passenger capacity have doubled. Secondly, with the world becoming closer due to technologies and world brands, big cities are having the same stores-cough-Starbucks-cough. And some cities have just had too much publicity and town officials who don't plan and are only looking for money. Prague is one. It's a beautiful city but no planning for crowds has been done so Charles Bridge and the old center is full of tourists no matter what season. My parents went at end of October and could literally not walk across the bridge due to all the tourists taking selfies and congregating around the area.

What can be done is travel during shoulder season October/November thru April. Yes, the weather might not be the greatest but it's less crowded and the locals seems less uptight. Go to attractions early when they open and get tickets ahead of time. Go visit grocery stores or pharmacies. More local culture in the shops that tourists don't frequent.

Finally, know that Italy is probably not the Under the Tuscan Sun, opera-singing, cute locals ideal that Rick Steves touts. It's constantly evolving and changing just like the US, sometimes in ways we might not like. It reminds me of going back to see my childhood home which used to be in a subdivision way out of town, but is now urban sprawl with strip malls all around. It will never be the way it was earlier.

Posted by
521 posts

Thanks everyone for the replies. I feel like I should add an update. As tends to happen, after months of reflection only the good stuff remains and the struggles seem less important or annoying then they were at the time. I reflect back and we had a great trip with great memories and the biggest win is that my sister has started her trip planning for her return to the EU (France) on her own. She loved the trip and we fondly reminisce about it now. So there must have been some Italian magic sprinkled on us. :)

Posted by
12594 posts

Finally, know that Italy is....constantly evolving and changing just
like the US, sometimes in ways we might not like.

Very true, Heather, and I'm thinking that applies to most places in the world? "Authentic" life for Italian Millennials or Gen Z'ers is, I'm guessing, quite different than it was for their grandparents, just as life has changed in the U.S. since my grandparent's time or even just since my youth.

Posted by
1642 posts

Each part of Italy I've been too, I had great experiences. I don't know about "carnival barkers, scammers or no towels."

I've been treated very nicely, excellent in some instances and made a few friends. If I needed assistance, people stepped up. I was welcomed back like a friend of the family. In fact, I was given a few nice extras at my fav restaurant. They appreciated my continued patronage and my compromise in one or two instances.

No scams. The store of my friend. He and his family were so kind. They gave me little surprises in my purchase.

I can't speak on customer service outside of staying in a hotel. The staff were superb. Of course, that's not to say there aren't good and bad in hotel or B&B accoms.

Posted by
20 posts

Although not everyone can go when they'd like...kids, school, jobs...we prefer Europe in early Spring or late Fall. We don't mind the cold/cool/rain. We've just found the Summer months way to warm for our liking. Also smaller crowds.

Posted by
1878 posts

Italy is a great country to visit, but there are a lot of downsides too. Sounds like you experienced some of those.

I visited Rome-Orvieto-Siena-Florence in late October/early November 2016 and it was manageable. Rome was overrun in places (Vatican Museums--I don't know if I'll go back on a next visit). Siena was very crowded. All Saints Day is November 1 and many Italians apparently take time off around that time.

The way some in the hospitality industry relate to tourists in Italy can be a bit off-putting. There are some restaurant touts, train station agents, and hotel clerks who are just out to show you who's boss--and it's not you. Note the majority, but some.

I am going to northern Italy soon in a couple of weeks myself. Venice-Ravenna-Padua-Bolzano-Verona-Milan (day trip to Varenna). I am apprehensive about crowds even those these are mostly second tier tourist cities, as Rick puts it. Especially nervous about Venice, but worst case I can walk the town, have already been there three times.

Posted by
14404 posts

According to this chart there were about twice as many tourists in Italy in 2018 as there were in 2005. Those of us who've been traveling to Europe for decades can't help but notice the huge growth in tourism.

I remember traveling in the 80s in August and September, walking up to the Eiffel Tower and going right up, the same with the Van Gogh Museum and Anna Frank House in Amsterdam, the Louvre and the Orsay without lines and so on. Now I avoid the lines and crowds as much as possible by traveling off-season, and visiting popular sights off-hours. For example, the Vatican Museums and St Peter's are crowded even in February now, but St Peter's at 7-8 a.m. is not.

Posted by
126 posts

I think sometimes we sabotage ourselves with unreasonable expectations. Rome is a big city with, yes ,lots of tourists. I have found that you can learn to tune them out for a time. My visit to the Sistine Chapel was a zoo - but I sat on the benches along the wall with my binoculars. I ignored the guards who move people along and just lost myself in the beauty of the ceiling- moving to new spots all around the room. It worked and it was a magical visit. I skipped the Trevi fountain - not worth it - and found fabulous art works in quiet churches all over the city. Big cities are loud, crowded, messy and sometimes dirty - I wouldn't live in one for anything, but there is also energy and excitement that can be fun with the right attitude - especially if combined with quieter moments that you can find if you look. Enjoy it all! sue

Posted by
21 posts

I can totally relate to your experience in Italy! I too was really frustrated and disappointed by how crowded and touristy every place was, compared to trips we've taken to other parts of Europe. Florence, Montepulciano and the Cinque Terre were absolutely the worst of our Italian experience because of that and I left saying I'll never go back to Italy. But, like you, now that it's been a year and I'm looking back over our photos, I realize that it really was wonderful and beautiful. It's just hard to appreciate the beauty when you're crammed in like sardines with thousands of your fellow American tourists. ;-) My friend has been to Cinque Terre several times, the first in 1999 and she said it really has become more and more crowded as the years have gone by, so it's not your imagination. I love Rick Steves and feel he has the best travel materials on the market but will say that the places not highlighted in his books were our favorites (probably because not as many Americans have discovered them yet). Mainly Santa Margherita Ligure (on the Riviera), and San Quirico in Tuscany (just a few minutes down the road from Pienza and Montepulciano. We really felt like we were immersed in Italy in those two places because we were the only Americans there! Think of it this way, now that you've seen the "must see" sights in Italy twice, the next time around you can visit some of the less well-known treasures.