Our last stops in Italy were Florence and Venice...two cities that are always at the top of most visiter's lists. I prefer Sienna over both though. Florence was too polished and geared towards mass tourism for my liking while Venice, even though spilling over with tour groups, was pretty cool. It still had that irritating habit of closing down in the afternoon though-I had not gotten used to that part of Italian culture. Overall, Italy was a good stop for us. I wasn't overly impressed with the social interaction aspects of the Italian culture, they seemed very closed off and protective. Luckily, there were times when we caught some authentic slices of everyday Italy most tourists don't see or even know about. Those are the times that travel becomes really fun, where unplanned and unexpected events begin to unfold around you - and you allow it to take you along for the ride.
We decided that the best way to see northern Italy would be to rent a car. It's been 6 months since I have driven and I was looking forward to some time behind the wheel. The plan was to drive to La Spezia first, which would be the staging point for exploring Cinque Terra, a group of five ancient villages perched on rugged cliffs overlooking the sea. We spent 2 days covering the "5 lands" as Cinque Terra is known. Had we known how much we would like La Spezia, we would have planned on staying longer but already had a room booked in Sienna and had to make our way into the heart of Tuscany. We followed the coast of the Italian Riviera for quite a ways before heading east into wine country. The drive was amazing and quite easy thanks to the navigation system as the roads are mainly unmarked in the Italian countryside. Sienna turned out to be much cooler than I had anticipated. We rented an apartment right next to Piazza Del Campo and spent the next couple days hanging out and people watching. Sienna was a stunning place, small enough to explore on foot with amazing architecture and history.
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We have been in Rome for almost 3 weeks and it is almost time to move on. We will spend the next 10 days driving through Tuscany and will visit La Spezia (which is our home base for exploring Cinque Terre), Florence, and then Venice. Our time in Rome was well spent and we experienced the sights and sounds of a world class city while nestled away in our little apartment in Pigneto. We couldn't ask for more gracious hosts. Annapaola and Paola went well out of their way to make us feel welcome, introduced us to some of their friends, and let us experience some cool events that we would never had heard about if it wasn't for them. GRATZI! Rome as a whole is a beautiful place, but at times we definitely felt out of place. Im sure we were looked at as just another couple tourists even though we tried to assimilate into the Roman culture as best we could. The language barrier is in full force with many of the locals we interacted with knew little or no English. I found that many times, just carrying a camera made me suspicious to those around me. I guess in a city like Rome, which is literally crawling with camera toting tourists from all over the world, a certain amount of camera shyness is developed. We are ready for a new experience and are hoping that northern Italy will be a nice change of pace. I will be driving a car for the first time in 6 months, so the next 10 days will certainly be an adventure!