The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

My Grand Tour through Italy on an art history student’s budget

Today Monika Frise — the daughter of one of our Random Nomads, Helena Halme — joins us as a guest blogger. Monika is an art history student in the UK. Here she tells of her trip to Italy last month with another art history student friend — a travel yarn that makes a welcome change from all the French foodie posts we’ve been doing of late. (That said, Monika does start out by talking about food — it’s Italy, after all!)

At the end of my first year at the University of Birmingham, facing a stressful exam period, I decided to book a holiday to Italy with a friend of mine, Liz. We planned to go in early September, after the summer crowds had ebbed and the weather would be somewhat cooler. We organized to visit five cities: Verona, Venice, Pisa, Florence, Siena and finally, Rome.

Both Liz and I are studying art history. Neither of us is specializing in Renaissance art — I’m studying Eastern European architecture/art and 19th-century French art this year (concentrating on the period just before the impressionists). However, we both loved the idea of making a Grand Tour through Italy to see the Grand Masters’ works, following in the footsteps of European aristocrats of centuries past — we just wished we had their riches to finance our journey!

The trip came around sooner than expected and I for one felt a little apprehensive about what it would be like moving to a different location every couple of days, on a student budget.

Buon appetito

Italians are famously passionate about their food, and despite having to watch our expenses, we were determined not to miss out — even if it meant eating a lot of pizza.

We made a determined effort to avoid restaurants close to large monuments and museums and seek out local eateries instead. We were somewhat taken aback at the prices of food, though — especially in Rome, where we had to search for a long time in order to find a cheap restaurant that also looked good.

Our first night in Verona, the plump, friendly hostel owner recommended a restaurant, Bella Napoli, for “having the best pizza in town.”

She also told us to “touch the left breast” of Juliet’s statue for good fortune in life.

We took her advice on both counts and weren’t sorry. At Bella Napoli, we shared the house specialty, pizza al metro (pizza by the meter), which arrived on its very own table on wheels.

Venice, however, posed more of a challenge. But, on our first night, after walking somewhat aimlessly through the narrow streets for some time, we chanced upon a small osteria offering home-cooked food at great value. For a change, we didn’t have pizza. I ordered gnocchi with tomato sauce: delicious.

The service, however, left a little to be desired — our waitress dumped our change on the table without even a smile. Likewise in Rome, service was rather hit or miss. We had excellent service at a pizzeria where they roll the dough right in front of you, but at a café close to Termini station we waited for our bill for such a long time we could have walked away without paying (yes, the thought did seriously cross our minds!).

Another affordable yet delectable treat is the famed gelato. The best we tasted — and we tasted a lot — was at a place called Rivareno just around the corner of our hostel in Rome . They soften the gelato with a palette knife before spooning it into the cup. There were so many different flavors on offer, but my favorite was probably caramelized fig and ricotta.

“Roughing” it

We students will walk miles to save money, but in a country like Italy that’s not such a bad thing. As Liz and I soon discovered, going everywhere on foot was the best way to take in the local color (not to mention work off all that pizza, pasta and gelato!).

In the small winding streets of Siena, we encountered a small boy playing the drums in little side street whilst a group of old men and women chatted nearby, seemingly oblivious to the racket he was making.

In Verona one night, we happened upon Juliet’s balcony (which we’d seen the day before in the daylight). The bronze statue of Juliet in the courtyard looked completely different when illuminated. Gazing through the gates at her peaceful shape summed up this city for me: bright and vibrant yet calm.

Walking was also a way of avoiding unwanted curiosities in the hostels where we stayed. The hostel in Venice, for instance, had a very bad case of bedbugs — so much so that we spent our second night sleeping on the dusty floor, with only a sheet beneath us. But even that didn’t stop the little blighters. At one point one of the other girls woke up with one of them on her cheek. Unfortunately, despite the beauty of Venetian art and architecture, it’s the bedbugs that made the most lasting impression, rather literally!

That said, walking also exposed us to some humans who behave like pests. More than once did we have to hurry away from some overeager men who were making kissing noises at us, and outside the Arena in Verona, the city of love, a “Roman gladiator” gave Liz a pat on the bum!

Art coming out of our ears

Tourism in Italy involves an endless parade in and out of churches. I reckon we saw about three in every city, apart from Siena where we saw only one, the Duomo di Siena.

We ended up appreciating the cathedral in Siena far more than the Basilica san Marco in Venice, which overwhelmed us with its abundance of Gold Romanesque mosaics and small adjoining rooms replete with countless treasures. Our guidebook had advised us to make several visits, but for me, a single visit was more than enough. Both interior and exterior reminded me of an over-sweet, over-decorated cake.

Since we are both interested in Renaissance art, Florence had a great deal to offer. My wise mother had advised that we pre-order tickets for both the Uffizi Gallery and the Accademia Gallery — the latter of course being the home of Michelangelo’s David.

After smugly walking past the long queue for the Accademia, Liz and I took a seat on a bench close to the David and watched as people circled around it, discussing its various aspects. (We even managed to sneak a picture of the statue whilst the guards weren’t looking, saving us a few extra cents on a postcard.)

At the Uffizi Gallery I particularly loved seeing Flora by Titian — so much better seeing it in a photo for appreciating the colors and brush strokes.

By the time we reached Rome, our enthusiasm for the Grand Tour had flagged somewhat. The Sistine Chapel, where everyone was herded around like sheep, especially disappointed us.

The best part of Rome was our trip to the Pantheon — fantastic! As we wandered around this circular building, I couldn’t take my eyes off the ceiling. I was transfixed.

First of many tours?

I would definitely like to return to Italy one day soon, and perhaps even try living there for a while.

Of the five cities we visited, I could really see myself in Siena even though it wasn’t my favorite place. It’s just that the atmosphere made me feel at home, I think because there were fewer tourists. (I particularly enjoyed my trip to the local supermarket, full of hustle and bustle and the smell of freshly baked bread.)

My Italian, which was very basic, got better as our trip progressed. However I would have to take a lot of classes if I were ever to brave living there!

NOTE: You can read Monika Frise’s art reviews on her new blog, Post Raphaelite, and/or follow her on twitter: @Shmonn.

Images: Juliet’s statue in Verona by night; from the foot of the leaning Tower of Pisa; flower sellers in streets of Florence, near the Duomo; three flavors of Roman gelato: pistachio, caramelized fig and ricotta, and crema mediterranea (a Rivareno speciality).

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, when founding contributing Anthony Windram reports on his attempt to make a Parisian lunch in California, following the recipes of Elizabeth Bard (see also ML Awanohara’s attempt).

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2 responses to “My Grand Tour through Italy on an art history student’s budget

  1. wanderingeducators October 21, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    love this!! and yes, finding where the locals eat can be the cheapest. next time, would you go to just one city? it’s hard to pack it all in!

  2. Monika Frise (@Shmonn) October 23, 2011 at 7:22 pm

    Thank you! Yes I think if I went to Italy again I would only go to Rome. Didn’t see everything there that we wanted to, and there is so much to see. Also think it would be good to only see one city to really get a feel for it…

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