Friday, November 22, 2019

Backpacking Europe Part 4: Italy and Croatia

The next stops on our backpacking adventure: Italy and Croatia!! As much as we loved Spain, we were so thankful to be able to get out of there and make it to Italy without too big of a hiccup in our itinerary. A little side story...

While we were in Switzerland, we got notification that our flight from BCN to FCO might be cancelled due to ground handlers on strike at Barcelona's airport on the day of our scheduled flight. To make a long story short, it did indeed get cancelled so we had to re-book at the last minute on a different airline. With the new flight itinerary, we were able to get to Rome earlier than we had time to fit the Colosseum into our plans. There's always a silver lining to detours ;). So that said, here's the next part of our adventure...

After a pretty early wakeup call and taxi, it was 6:00 am and we were at the airport bound for Roma!! Italy was country #5 for the trip.

Once we got to Fiumicino Airport, we took a very sketchy taxi into the city. I think we probably had "American tourists" written on our forehead. It was a luxury car, but in hindsight, the driver only took cash (which we thankfully had, since he didn't tell us that beforehand), and I don't think he was a legit or legal taxi. But the good news is, we made it to our apartment safe and sound. It wasn't quite ready for us, so we found a luggage storage service at a nearby bicycle shop, and made the short walk over to the Colosseum.

We didn't book tickets ahead of time because of timing concerns. I had read recently about someone who had less than 24 hours in Rome, and spent hours waiting in line with their "skip-the-line" tickets. Well, don't believe everything you read. Everyone else's experiences won't always be your own- which is part of the beauty of travel. 

That said, we could have purchased tickets on our phone and went through a quick line and been inside in no time. We chose to just stand in line and wait for tickets since we were already there, and it felt like we barely waited in line at all. It went really quick, and without advance reservations, we were in and out of the Colosseum in less than a few hours. I definitely don't think we could have been this lucky in the high season, but it worked out perfectly for us and we couldn't have been more pleased with how our day turned out. Especially after having to question if we would even get to make it to Rome. ;)

So grateful we got to have this unexpected experience. It was very surreal for this history nerd.

After the Colosseum, we had some pizza and Prosecco and walked around until we could get into our apartment. We got settled in (I think we stayed more nights in this apartment than any of the others) and rested a bit. Then we took a (legal) Uber to...Vatican City!! As it's an independent city-state, this was technically our trip's 6th country. 

I was super excited because we had special tickets for a Vatican Night Tour. This tour was only available on Friday nights for a limited schedule, and it was neat to have the rare opportunity to see the Vatican Museums at night. I was so thankful this worked out with our itinerary. Even though it seemed super crowded to us they said it really didn't compare to how crowded the regular tours get. Whew- I can't even imagine.

OK as bad as I hate to say this...I am so thankful I got to see the museums and the Sistine Chapel, but the experience was not what I was expecting it to be. 

Our guide had basically told us to do nothing in the Chapel- don't talk and she even joked to barely breathe as it's such a sacred place. But once we got in there, it seemed more like some kind of cheapened attraction than the holy experience it should/could have been. 

People were talking above a whisper, people were "hiding" their phones in plain sight and using their cameras, and a lot of girls were dressed immodestly. I don't know. I was disappointed by the lack of respect and constraint. There were signs everywhere about the rules but no one really doing anything about everyone breaking them. Had the situation been under more control, I really think it could have been a more beautiful experience instead of feeling like a frenzy. This is another of the many ways I think that social media is ruining tourism. But I digress. I took no pictures, and even though I was let down, it was very surreal to get to witness it all in person from the floor to the ceiling. After the tour we took an Uber back home and called it a night.

The next morning, we SLEPT IN. All the praise hands as it was much needed! We had a pasta lunch nearby our apartment. Then we did a HOHO tour around Rome. While this isn't necessarily my favorite way to see a city, it was good for us as there's so much to see in this city and we had little time to see it all.

It drove us past most of the prominent landmarks. We hopped off at one of the last stops and made our way to...

...the Trevi Fountain. It was super crowded of course, so we grabbed a few pics, threw our coins in, and got out of there.

We ventured back to our neighborhood, had dinner, and home again. The next day, we had big plans that I was really pumped about! We took an Uber to Termini Station because...

...we were Napoli (Naples) bound!!

We took the high-speed Frecciarossa from Rome to Naples then connected on a small, rickety train for our destination. I wish we could have spent time in Naples, but the purpose of this day trip was to see Pompeii!!

This was definitely a bucket list item for me. I remember vividly studying about this ancient lost city and Mount Vesuvius when I was in grade school. To see it in person was better than any history textbook.

We walked around for a few hours and took in as much of it as we could. It was so easy to get could easily spend an entire day here.

One interesting thing to see at Pompeii was all the feral cats.

Ha! We learned to sleep at any chance we got on this trip.

We took the small train (if you could even call it that) back to Naples. We then found a kiosk to purchase our high-speed train tickets back to Rome and RAN through the terminal to make our connection. We literally hopped on the train with minutes to spare, but if we hadn't made this one, it would have put us getting back to Rome pretty late.

Day Trip Information
In case you're interested, this day trip was not hard at all to plan. We did all of it ourselves without any kind of tour or package. The only thing we purchased ahead of time was the tickets from Rome to Naples and the actual tickets for Pompeii excavation site. The tickets from Naples to Pompeii and back can only be purchased in real-time at the terminal. This train line is pretty old-school. We also didn't purchase our tickets from Naples back to Rome in advance because we didn't want to constrain our day by timed tickets. 

We ended up taking a different trainline back, the privately-owned Italo bullet train. The Frecciarossa operated by Trenitalia that we took on the way to Naples is state-owned. The Italo was a little bit more expensive but it was also purchased last minute- they were both I think less than 2 hours, non-stop, and comfortable. The state-owned one may have even been a bit more comfy to me. Of course, not booking the high-speed train ahead of time, there is always the risk of it being sold out, but thankfully we didn't have any issue with that. There are plenty of articles online that spell out step-by-step how to do this day trip. I was super pleased with how we figured it out as we went. :)

We got back to Rome's Termini Station, ate dinner, and walked home. The next morning, I think we had our earliest wakeup call of the entire trip! Like 2:00am early. But it was okay because we were heading to country #7 and possibly my favorite stop...the Balkan country of Croatia!!

We had pre-booked a scheduled taxi for transport to the airport. I am so thankful we stuck to our general rule of getting to the airport 2 hours in advance, even that early in the morning, because the line was SO long and slow for checking in.

All smiles at 5am only for Split!

My only regret about Split is not giving ourselves more than 24 hours there! It was beautiful. It was charming. It was lovely. 

We had a really amazing Uber driver from the airport who uses his taxi job as a way to practice informal English with his riders (he grew up studying it formally in school). He taught us a lot about the history of Croatia but also so much about its current state and presented Split to us in such an interesting way. Tourism in Croatia is growing exponentially and it's easy to see why.

I think part of why I loved Split so much is that it's obviously attracting, but it's not a mainstream destination. Yes there are tourists but it's not overrun with them. It's still a little off the beaten path, and while that may change before too long, I really hope I get the chance to go back. Split absolutely captured me, and I also want to see more outside of the city and explore some of Croatia's national parks, and maybe also see more of the Dalmatian coast. ;)

We stored our luggage, walked to a seaside coffee shop, and walked to breakfast (which was delicious) before exploring Green Market and Diocletian's Palace

It's basically a large fortress with a lot of historical and cultural sites. 

Nearby, there is a tall statue of Gregory of Nin, who is important in Croatian history and culture. As a note of interest, in 926 AD he defied the Catholic church by wanting the services to be in the local language rather than in Latin. He wanted laypeople to be able to better understand God's Word (sounds similar to Luther to me). Legend has it to rub his great toe for your wish to come true, so Paige and I did so just for fun. ;)

We stopped at several of the street vendors for shopping after exchanging some euros for kuna. I did find it interesting that when we wanted to buy sunscreen for the beach, we had to get it from a pharmacy, and it was behind the counter. After we retrieved our luggage and checked into our apartment, we took a little walk to one of the local beaches.

The walk was so pretty! Split has so much underrated character. I loved the architecture.

Paige, me, and the Adriatic Sea :)

After the beach, we freshened up for dinner, and walked nearby to have a traditional Croatian meal of Dalmatinska pa┼íticada which typically includes beef and gnocchi. We stopped at a wine bar on our walk home and then it was bedtime.

We got dropped off at Split Airport the next morning. It's a brand new terminal as in just opened this summer I believe, and I'm not really sure the reasoning behind this but it's unique as there's no separate airline check-in lines there. It's all operated under "Split Airport" which is even what our boarding passes said instead of being issued by our airline, which was Olympic Air (as we were headed to Greece). I don't know. The only part I didn't like was not being able to check in online and get a mobile boarding pass. I did find it efficient but it also wasn't crowded when we were there...I'm just curious to know the logic and economics behind it. All of the gates were airline-neutral as well.

This stop was one we weren't sure we could fit into the trip and it was super short...but I am so glad we did it!! 

Split, Croatia...we loved you! 

It was now time to head for our next destination in the Greek isles. Stay tuned for that, but here's the other posts leading up to this one in case you missed the tale of our trip up until now...

We'll catch up soon! XO

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