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spanish steps romeOn my last night in Rome, I thought I’d gone blind.

Fortunately, it turned out that I was just very tired. The muscles in my left eye wouldn’t dilate my pupil, leaving me unable to take in more light. It was as though my pupil were a heavy barn door and keeping it open was just too much work.

Rome is not, as it happens, a relaxing place to go on holiday.

It is not a place to go if you’re looking for a more sedate pace of life. It’s a place where architecture falls over itself like people squeezing onto an over-stuffed Metro train.

We did try to have a quiet day. It was raining, so we went to Babington’s Tea Rooms in search of Earl Grey. Earl Grey tea is rare in Rome. It’s seen as more of a medicinal curiosity than a delicious refreshment, so you’re more likely to find it at a pharmacy than a restaurant. As we sipped, we ate sugary cakes that made our teeth buzz like maladjusted transistor radios.

When we’d finished, it was still raining, so we crossed the bottom of the Spanish Steps to visit the Keats-Shelley House. It’s a tiny, intimate museum, filling the space that was the poet John Keats’ last residence before his death from tuberculosis in 1821. We hadn’t meant to have such an English day, but the museum was close and, as it turned out, an excellent find.

Our Favorite Spots to Stay in Rome

As we rang the bell, we noticed an ugly knot of people gathered up, like a fist, around the column in the square. They were protestors. The armed guards outside the Spanish embassy looked nervous.

rome crowdWe’d settled into a dark room to watch a short film about the Romantic poets in Rome when a volley of shots outside drew everyone out of their seats and to the nearest window. So much for our quiet day.

We’d seen lots of protests during that week in April. A few days before, the president had been hastily sworn in for a second term to break the political deadlock that had mired the country for the last few years. Police and press crowded the streets, and jets flew tricolor smoke overhead.

Many Romans saw this as more of the same kind of corruption and cronyism that has caused many to lose faith in their political representatives. They felt dissatisfied with the slow pace of change, and the resurgent influence of Silvio Berlusconi — a man seen by many as an overt criminal — caused tempers to fray. There were blockades of expensive shops and hotels. Everyone wanted to make their opinion heard in ways that the traditional electoral system didn’t necessarily allow. Earlier in our trip we’d sat in a square in Trastavere watching some anti-fascists protesting by playing the accordion. (Didn’t you know? Accordion music is like a stake through the heart for fascists.)

Now, at the museum, we soon learned that the “shots” we’d heard had, in fact, been nothing more than a string of firecrackers that someone had let off under one of Keats’ windows.

The museum’s curator seemed sad. “It’s a vibrant city for sure,” she said, “but there’s a real dissatisfaction at the moment.”

walk rome cobblestonesFrom the outside, it looks impossible for Berlusconi to come back, but within Italy there is a lot of support — and now that he’s gaining power again, people are wondering whether anything they do will ever change anything.

We left Rome in a state of flux, but that’s nothing new. Rome thrives on change, on excitement, new ideas and influences. It is a city that has successfully reinvented itself over and over again throughout the centuries. Even when things seem hopeless, you get the feeling that a change could be just around the corner.

11 Unforgettable Italy Experiences

– written by Josh Thomas

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

This week’s shot was taken in colorful Burano, an island in Venice.

burano venice italy colorful


Photos: 11 Unforgettable Italy Experiences

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

Our Favorite Venice Hotels

– written by Sarah Schlichter

burano islandMy parents just returned from two weeks in Italy. I visited them a day after they got back. In two hours, they only got through telling me about Venice, Florence and the Amalfi Coast (about half of their trip). They loved it all, but both got the most excited when talking to me about their day trip to the Amalfi Coast with their guide, Carmine.

Carmine is from Sorrento; he knows everyone in Sorrento and around the Amalfi Coast. His connections and knowledge of the area enabled him to bypass long lines of bus traffic, take my parents to lesser known — but equally lovely and less crowded — sites and give them real insights into local life.

11 Best Italy Experiences

So many of those insights came just by getting to know Carmine. After only one day, my parents knew all about him. They knew that all his siblings went to university for tourism, but that Carmine isn’t a school kind of person so he taught himself everything by reading. They met his boyhood friends, Mario and Luigi, who run a hotel in Sorrento. They could rattle off the names of countries Carmine has been to, how he wants to expand his guide business and how he’s having girl problems. The point is, when all was said and done, they couldn’t say enough good things about him and the memorable day he gave them on the Amalfi Coast.

Carmine isn’t the first great guide my parents have had. When I was 21, we took a family trip to Israel. That was 19 years ago, but I still remember our guide, Ron. It was from him that I learned the nickname native-born Israelis give themselves: sabra, a fruit that’s hard and prickly on the outside but soft inside. Ron took us to so many amazing places, told us the history of every place we went, introduced us to locals and even took us, very briefly, into the West Bank.

A great guide can make all the difference when traveling. Sure, you can take yourself around, using a guidebook and some Internet research, but without the color, knowledge and passion a local guide brings to the experience, it’s just sightseeing.

When Do You Need a Tour Guide?

Have you ever had a truly great guide? Where were you and what made him or her so wonderful?

– written by Dori Saltzman

Did you know that the first Wednesday in April has been declared National Walking Day by the American Heart Association? Well, now you do.

While the AHA aims to encourage more physical activity among those of us who spend hours upon hours sitting at a desk, we couldn’t resist putting a travel spin on the day — because let’s face it, most of us walk much more when we’re off exploring a new place than we do when we’re at home.

We recently asked our followers on Facebook to name their favorite city or neighborhood for strolling — and the list of places we got in response would inspire just about anyone to hit the pavement. Following are a few of our favorites:

“Assisi, Italy … peaceful, quaint & beautiful!” — Tracey Pino

assisi italy church



New York City — especially Broadway from Columbus Circle to the 80’s” — Beth Glass

central park new york city dog walking



“Old City in Jerusalem” — Rose Kemps

old city jerusalem souq souk market



“Definitely Sydney — from the Rocks all the way around to the Botanical Gardens” — Gill Harvey

botanical gardens sydney



What Not to Do in a New City

Which city tops your list of favorite places to walk?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

Today’s shot is of the cliff-side village of Manarola in Cinque Terre, Italy.

manarola cinque terre italy colorful


11 Unforgettable Italy Experiences

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

Our Favorite Hotels in Rome

– written by Sarah Schlichter

st ignatius church rome domeEach month, we’ll highlight one new trip review submitted by an IndependentTraveler.com reader. If your review is featured, you’ll win an IndependentTraveler.com logo item!

In this month’s featured review, reader Amelia Hesson spends three days exploring Rome, the Eternal City. “We walked from our hotel to the king of Baroque churches called St. Ignatius. The Romans call this the 3D church because the artist Pozzo painted a fake dome which looks very much like a dome if you are standing in the proper place to see it. It’s very cool — moving through the church you see it become distorted and even then it is something to behold. This church is painted very much like the Sistine Chapel with biblical scenes rising up the walls and onto the roof of the church. Don’t forget to turn on the lights of the dome, they really illuminate it well and it only costs one euro.”

Read the rest of Amelia’s review here: Roma, Roma, Roma. Amelia has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag.

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

11 Best Italy Experiences

– written by Sarah Schlichter

paris catacombs skullsToday is Valentine’s Day, and travel sites will be filling your inbox with lists of romantic hotels and destinations. All will feature wonderful things for couples to do together, and dreamy suites with large bathtubs — including some shaped like hearts and filled with Champagne and chocolates.

But isn’t all of that a little … cliche? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to get an e-mail for Valentine’s Day recommending that you and your loved one visit the Parisian catacombs or tour a historic prison? We think so. We’ve put together a list of four destinations to visit that wouldn’t normally be associated with Valentine’s Day.

Feel free to add your own to the list!

The Parisian Catacombs: A romantic hangout for the “Twilight”-loving crowd it might be, but for most of us the 18th-century catacombs located beneath the streets of Paris are a bit creepy. Still, what better place to be if you want an excuse to cuddle really close to your loved one?

Best Places to Stay in Paris

Alcatraz: Also referred to as “The Rock” (hmm, that seems appropriate for Valentine’s Day, actually), Alcatraz is a small island in San Francisco that housed an infamous federal prison from 1934 to 1963. Couples looking for an illicit thrill can give each other a peck on the lips in the (reportedly haunted) cell in which Al Capone once lived.

Verona, Italy: Actually not an unromantic destination at all, Verona is a city located in northeast Italy with an artistic heritage and Roman ruins. Alas, Verona also is known as the place Romeo and Juliet met their doomed end.

Intercourse, Pennsylvania: A rather appropriately named town for Valentine’s Day, don’t you think? This quaint tourist town in Amish Country was used during the filming of the Harrison Ford movie “Witness.” Visitors can check out the local crafts, take a buggy ride or visit the Quilt Museum.

12 Places Every Chocolate Lover Should Visit

– written by Dori Saltzman

rome spanish stepsStrolling the historic streets of Rome while savoring a few creamy scoops of gelato is one of travel’s most delicious pleasures. But if you’re visiting the Eternal City any time soon, don’t try to sit down on the Spanish Steps or the Trevi Fountain with that ice cream — a new Roman ordinance prohibits eating and drinking near the city’s historic, architectural or cultural treasures, reports the New York Times.

The ordinance, designed to protect landmarks such as the Pantheon and the Colosseum from potential damage (it also prohibits camping on the monuments), follows similar statutes elsewhere in Italy. The New York Times notes that it’s illegal to eat a bag lunch while sitting on the steps around St. Mark’s Square in Venice, while this summer Florence banned visitors from the steps of its cathedral.

11 Best Italy Experiences

Of course, Italy isn’t the only country where tourists could be tripped up by unexpected laws. You’ll want to watch your step in the following places around the globe:

1. Germany: Drivers who run out of gas on the Autobahn could face a fine.

2. Singapore: You won’t find chewing gum for sale anywhere in this city-state, nor are you allowed to bring it into the country yourself (except for medicinal/therapeutic reasons). Violators could face fines, stints of community service or even jail time.

3. Thailand: You may not step on or destroy any part of the local currency. It’s considered an insult to the king, whose face appears on all coins and bills.

4. New York State: You might want to reconsider that vacation fling. Adultery is illegal here (it’s on the books as a class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail or $500 in fines).

16 Signs You’re Addicted to Travel

– written by Sarah Schlichter

On a Mediterranean cruise with six port calls in seven days — essentially the tapas restaurant version of European travel — you might only have 10 hours in port to get it right. Ironically, in many ways the half-day visit requires more researching and planning than a lengthier, more stationary stay.

Unless you have a local friend. Or the next best thing: a guide.

If you’re a fan of Julius Caesar, Augustus or Caligula (you weirdo), there’s nothing like Rome, near which our ship docked for the day (in Civitavecchia, a 12-euro train ride away). It’s an easy capital to visit in the sense that it’s eminently walkable. Just wear comfortable tennis shoes and stay hydrated via the fontanellas, the public fountains found in almost every square. But it’s a challenge in that its history is as dense as the Pantheon’s walls, and, as in other epic destinations, tourist traps sprout like barbarian hordes around the 2,000-year-old monuments.

rome


As a wanderer, my previous experiences in the Eternal City comprised just that: ambling for what sometimes seemed like an eternity until I reached a Renaissance-era church or second-century ruin, not knowing what either really meant. This time — my shortest visit — would be different.

Our Favorite Places to Stay in Rome

Our group of three met Teresa, a U.S. expat turned Rome tour guide for Love Holidays (and a long-time friend of one of our fellow passengers). She took us through mini-tours of the Colosseum, the Pantheon and San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter’s Chains), and brought us to a low-key cafe filled with Italians enjoying sandwiches and salads. Bouncing questions off Teresa — did Nero really fiddle while Rome burned? Should I get the raspberry or apricot gelato? — went a long way toward making me feel like I wasn’t squandering my time.

“What do you guys want to do?” (followed by 20 interesting options) was a welcome conversation starter on more than one occasion.

11 Best Italy Experiences

Finding yourself such a guide, of course, is the trick, but it’s increasingly easy. TripAdvisor reviews, message board recommendations and friends with a penchant for gladiators can all steer you in the right direction. And a private guide isn’t necessarily that expensive; split among a party of four or five, you can expect to pay about 100 euros each (plus museum entrance fees, public transport and tip) for a full, eight-hour day. That’s less than cruise lines charge for the “panoramic” motorcoach tour — you know, those excursions that often leave 40 passengers in that hazy space between sleep and reality, heads thudding against windows at regular intervals.

For more information, see When Do You Need a Tour Guide?

– written by Dan Askin

venice map woman lostAn hour is a long time in politics. It can also be an interminable unit of time on a train or when cooped up in a meeting.

But hurrying, lost, through Venice‘s maze-like streets, coming up against dead ends, blocked off by opaque green canals with a less-than-helpful map and a heavy bag, with under an hour before you’re due on a cruise ship or at the airport … well, then an hour can seem very, very short indeed.

With its bustling cruise port — Europe’s fourth busiest, in fact — and glorious history, Venice is a tourist magnet. Which may explain why getting away from it can be difficult.

As soon as I arrived in Venice, I took a short vaporetto ride down the Grand Canal to the Piazza San Marco. It’s from there that I realized that it’s definitely still a working town. I saw boatloads of fruit and vegetables being unloaded into supermarkets, while police, taxis and firefighters rushed about in specially equipped boats. Amid the crowds of tourists, everyday people went about their everyday business.

Still, I couldn’t help but wish that I had the place to myself.

So I decided to put my map back in my rucksack and walk. Venice isn’t a big city, right? Though I’d never be able to see it all in such a short space of time, I was certain I’d be able to find my way back to the central station in time for my train to the airport.

Our Favorite Places to Stay in Venice

I quickly lost the tourist crowds and, before long, was walking alongside the wide-open lagoon, watching the afternoon sun lighting the tips of gentle waves and looking at the far-off islands where Venetians have traditionally buried their dead.

But as darkness came, my curiosity went out the window. This had been fun, I thought, but I needed to get back. Now. But the streets got narrower and darker. The shadows stuck together behind me like cobwebs. No one else was around and I was getting worried.

I wandered urgently through narrow alleyways, crossing bridges over water that looked as though it had been used to clean someone’s paint brushes. The crowds of tourists I’d passed before were long gone. Getting lost in a foreign city is an excellent way to step away from the obvious and have a unique and memorable experience. In a city like Venice, you are almost guaranteed to bump into something new and astonishing around every corner.

But there is also something to be said for knowing where you’re going and being able to find your way out again.

11 Best Italy Experiences

By chance, I made it to the only part of Venice that had cars and managed to catch a taxi to the airport. I was lucky, but I was also stupid. I was so keen not to be a typical tourist that I ended up being even more of one by taking the place for granted. I presumed that once I’d had enough, the way out would be plainly signposted and easy to see.

And chasing after a taxi while sweating under a heavy bag, map flapping like a sail, is, I suppose, probably not the best way to see a city either.

– written by Josh Thomas