Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Italy on a budget

You know you’re in Italy when there are discarded cigarette butts & dog poop everywhere you step and graffiti on every wall,  and you have to pay the equivalent of $1-2 to use a public toilet. Everyone is eating gelato, even though it’s only 12C/54F outside. There’s a church around every corner and a bar/coffee shop on every block where the locals pause for a quick caffè (espresso). Your first course at a restaurant is pasta and your last is another espresso, even if it's 10PM!
ready to board a graffiti-covered train
Despite what you may think based on the first two sentences of this post, I love Italy! The food, wine, art, churches, history, and overall scenic beauty adds up to a great travel destination. Yes, there is plenty of room for improvement in a lot of areas, as with anywhere in the world. At least they have banned smoking in most enclosed spaces and have designated smoking areas at public venues like train station platforms (although the locals completely ignore the signs)!
view from the top of Florence's Duomo
I have traveled to Italy multiple times in the past 13 years, crossing into the Italian Alps during my first trip to Europe in 1991, then covering a variety of cities & countryside (Venice, Florence, Siena, Rome, Cinque Terre) during my solo backpacking trip in 1998. I also got to re-visit Rome and Venice several times as a flight attendant between 1999-2005. For the past five years I have chosen to travel to other parts of the world so it was great to spend three weeks in Italy as part of our round-the-world trip.
me at the top of Siena's Torre del Mangia - Oct'98
Having already seen the better part of northern Italy, I would have liked to venture south, to Naples & Sicily in particular. But everything is expensive in Europe compared to where we’ve just been; for example, an average budget hotel in Italy is $75 per night at this time of year (March, still off-peak) versus less than $30 per night in Southeast Asia. Since our funds are quite limited at this point in the trip, we really have to prioritize where we want to go in Europe. And since I have been virtually everywhere (compared to Greg) and we are mostly traveling on his dime now, our itinerary is ultimately his choice.
riding the Milan airport train to the city center - we made it to Italy!!!
We ended up spending most of our time in the big cities: Milan, Venice, Florence and Rome, with a couple of nights in Siena wedged in the middle. We traveled by either train or bus between cities and then walked as much as possible between sights. We saved money by buying groceries and cooking whenever possible. We ate yogurt & granola for breakfast, made sandwiches for lunch, and ate simple pasta and vegetables for dinner with cheap 2-3EUR bottles of wine. Our average food cost per day was $25 (for two people) versus $40 to eat one dinner at a restaurant (with no drinks). As is common in the U.S., cheaper meals can be had at ethnic restaurants; for example, Turkish kebap places sell delicious & filling 3-4EUR doner durums (a wrap with shaved chicken or lamb & lots of veggies). We even ate a good Chinese meal in Siena with two appetizers, two entrees, a side of rice and a half liter of wine all for only $30.
this is Greg walking down the street in Florence with a can of soup in his hand - we had been to the supermarket for lunch provisions
Another way we were able to save some money was by couch surfing. We were extremely lucky to be invited to stay at Devang Naik’s apartment in the Oltrarno section of Florence, walking distance to all the sights. Devang is the younger brother of one of my best friends from high school. He is currently doing post-doc work in the field of physics and was busy with a conference while we were in town. He treated us like family, giving us keys to his apartment and even sleeping on the couch so we could have the bed. It was a great place to chill out, do further trip planning, cook a few light meals, do laundry, etc. and I really can’t thank Devang enough for his hospitality!
Devang's cozy apartment with our laundry hanging to dry on the loft railing
The comfort & convenience of Devang’s apartment inspired me to look into apartment rentals for our time in Rome. I knew that in order to see the top sights on our list without feeling rushed, we would need at least three to four full days. As even a dorm bed in Rome costs over $30 per night, with private rooms at least twice that and hotels even more, an apartment can be a great value. I found several suitable places on VRBO and we ended up settling on a large one-bedroom in Trastevere for $655 for one week. While the price per night equates to $94, the huge advantage was having a full kitchen to cook proper meals (not just pasta & sauce!), a washing machine, and free wifi.
view from the balcony of our apartment in Trastevere, Rome
Expensive admission fees at most museums (average 6.50EUR or more per person) meant that we had to be choosy about which sights we visited. Where it made sense financially for what we were most interested in seeing, we purchased passes (Chorus Pass in Venice, OPA Pass in Siena, Roma Pass). We downloaded FREE Rick Steves audio tours and played them on our mobile phones which was a great way to better understand what we were seeing and to not miss the highlights at big museums like the Uffizi in Florence. Speaking of the Uffizi, we had to wait in line two hours to get in, plus it cost 11EUR per person! But it was still worth it to see the best collection of Italian art anywhere in the world (although I would consider paying the extra 4EUR to make a reservation and thus avoid the line next time).
Greg listening to a Rick Steves' audio tour at the Roman Forum
We also knew the potential consequences when we decided to save 15EUR per person by visiting the Vatican Museum on free Sunday (the last Sunday of every month). On that day, the museum opens at 9AM and last entry is at noon so you have to get there early to ensure you get in. We got up at 6AM and, after two bus rides, were in line by 7:30. I brought a picnic breakfast which we ate standing up but paid an exorbitant 6EUR for two cups of cappucino from a nearby café. Still, we were in the museum shortly after it opened and quickly made a beeline, enjoying all the empty rooms along the way, for the Sistine Chapel where we were rewarded with a practically empty room with plenty of seating & space to gaze at the master work of Michelangelo. The museum started filling up quickly after that, but we didn’t mind since we had just saved almost $43!!!
the Round Room by Simonetti - completely empty shortly after 9AM
the same room at 11:45AM - yikes!
By the way, our total expenses in Italy, not including international airfare from India, were $2480 for two people for 20 nights. Considering the average cost of a 20 night package tour is $3650 per person not including airfare, some meals and other expenses, then you can see the advantage of traveling independently in Europe!
the beautiful dome of St Peter's by Michelangelo and baldacchin by Bernini
I could write a whole post about our time in each city but I think I will sum this up by listing all the sights we visited along with the links to my photos:

Milan - Basilica di Sant'Ambrogio, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Castello Sforzesco, Pinacoteca di Brera, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, Duomo
Milan photos
Venice - Piazza San Marco & St Mark‘s Basilica, San Zaccaria, Rialto Bridge, Campo Della Pescaria, San Stae, San Giacomo dall'Orio, San Polo, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, San Sebastiano, Ponte Accademia, Santo Stefano, Santa Maria del Giglio, Jewish Ghetto, Santa Maria dei Miracoli, Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Santa Maria Formosa
Venice photos
Florence - Ponte Vecchio, Duomo & cupola climb, Orsanmichele, Piazza della Signoria, Santa Croce, Uffizi, Brancacci Chapel at Santa Maria del Carmine, Porta San Frediano, Porta Romana, Santo Spirito, Oltrarno walk
Florence photos
Siena - Piazza del Campo, San Francesco & Oratory of San Bernardino, San Domenico, House & Sanctuary of Santa Caterina, Duomo, Museo Dell’Opera, Crypt, Baptistry; wandering around trying to find different contradas
Siena photos
Rome - Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Popolo, Ostia Antica, Vatican Museums, Forum, Colosseum, St Peter’s Basilica, Papal Archbasilica of St. John Lateran
Rome photos

1 comment:

  1. I remember Devang. That's great he let you guys use his place. I love all your posts and enjoy the photos as well. Keep'em coming.