We flew into Milan about 4pm, whilst listening to our Italian Music Playlist for inspiration and headed straight to our accommodation. We had decided to stay in a luxury hotel for our two nights here and start the trip with a little comfort. Luxury hotels were by no means to be a regular feature on this trip though, as we wanted to experience a range, from budget hostels up to the more decadent. We would stay at one, two, three and four star properties on this trip. We were going to interrail in first class and economy cabins and we were going to eat in fancy restaurants, just as much as eat street food.
Why were we travelling with such wide variety? Well, for us it was about understanding the differences. I’m sure there are people who are used to luxury who wouldn’t entertain sleeping in a hostel – “urgh, it’s not up to my standards” I can imagine they might say. Then again, I’m sure there are backpackers who wouldn’t dream of staying in a fancy hotel – “what a waste of money” they might say. Who’s right? What are the benefits of each? Let’s find out.
More than this though, the primary reason for our visit was to see Italy – a fascinating country of culture, food, wine, art, architecture and history. But not an air-brushed version of Italy either – warts and all. The Mafia, Mussolini, their struggling economy, the unkempt streets and graffiti. We wanted to take the rough with the smooth. After all, that is part of Italy too.
Our first two nights were definitely more on the smooth side, staying in the Grand Visconti Palace (from €130 pn) which we would recommend booking through Expedia. It is a lovely hotel, based in an old mill in the south of central Milan. The only criticism I could level, was their hotel bar prices were around double that of other establishments and a little greedy at €12-14 for an aperitif. We were paying for the ambiance I guess and that was at least, very nice.
In keeping with our plush surrounding, we headed for the Pinacoteca di Brera which is free to enter on the first Sunday of every month (€10 entry normally). It features a collection of varied and impressive Italian art, encapsulating the countries fine art culture and religious significance.
We ate at two restaurants in Milan. Firstly the Il Principe De Navigli (Prince Of Canals) restaurant in the Navigli district. We were lucky to get in, arriving at the very opening of the evening service, as we didn’t have a reservation and they were fully booked. The host said that “so long as we could finish our meal within two hours, that would be fine”. I’d heard that Italians like to eat long and slow meals, so I guess he wanted to make sure we wouldn’t get in the way of the 9pm reservation they had for our table. You’d be lucky to get more than an hour on a table in a UK restaurant. These Italians know how to live.
They seated us and immediately provided a glass of prosecco and a plate of prosciutto bread. Confused by this, I wondered if we should be expecting a set menu – panic set in, do they do things differently in Italy – but almost as soon and that though had arisen, the waiter appeared and took our order. We ate a plate of delicious pasta each, shared a cheesecake desert and had the most amazing bottle of frizzanti white house wine – Kate’s favourite wine during the whole trip. Along with the bill came a shot of Limoncello and a plate of biscotti. Checking the bill, not knowing what to expect, I was amazed to see it read €42 for both of us and that the prosecco, bread, Limoncello and biscotti were all complimentary. This evening might be the best dining experience of Italian food I’ve ever had!
The next night, we ate in the budget orientated Pizza AM (€10-15pp) in the south of the city. Here we were treated to a lively atmosphere and fun service but the host forgot about us and we were seated after many people who arrived after us. The price was good, the quality of the ingredients was great but our pizza base was a little soggy. The Pizza had been rushed in the technique of putting it all together. None the less, the free glass of prosecco and mini-starter we were comp’ed upon arrival went a long way to buying the goodwill to forgive those mistakes.
After the decadence of Milan, it was time to take things down a notch and we boarded our economy carriage for the train to Venice. Using our interrail passes and the app you can download to your phone (which works offline without internet) we picked out the trains that didn’t require any additional seat reservation fee, saving us €10 per person but adding a little time to the journey. That said, the Italian economy trains are very clean and comfortable and we enjoyed sitting on the top of the double-decker trains, for the view.
In Venice we tried to get our budget back on track, after the fancy start to the trip. We were perfectly happy to go from espresso bar (€1 per espresso) to trattoria (€2.50-4 per Aperol or Campari Spritz) to Pizza slice take away (€2-3 per slice) and arancini huts. Venice is ideal for street eats whilst wandering around the ancient city’s waterways. We stayed in the ideally located Palazzetto Madonna in one of their modern rooms (from €100 pn). To be honest, I think we would have preferred one of their more traditional rooms, in retrospect.
Our next voyage took us in search of the alps and snowy mountain scenes, to the northern Italian town of Bolzano. It was an eventful trip, via Verona, on account of a strike on the Italian train networks, we weren’t aware of before starting our journey. After a lot of confusion and a little persistence, we were back on our way and sampling our first taste of ‘primo’ class on an international train bound for Munich. I particularly enjoyed the old-style cabins and felt like I was travelling in a sophisticated 70’s thriller film.
A mix of German and Italian culture awaited us in Bolzano and it being December, an incredible German Christmas market. We left ourselves a little short on time for this stop, as the only place where we spend just one night but you live and learn. A mulled wine or two, a great meal and a good nights sleep at the basic but comfortable Toby’s Rooms (from €50 pn)and we were off again. This two star, basic but very clean and comfortable self-service hotel was great value and you can book it through Booking.com.
I took particular notice of the complimentary newspapers that were handed out on the first class cabin, on the next leg of our trip to Rome. It was not like I could read them of course but I was interested in what others were reading. La Repubblica and Corriere Della Sera are politically centrist newspapers and the Italian’s on-board looked most interested in them. I wondered if the wealthy Italian’s in the first class cabin had been former centre-right voters who had become put-off by the disgracing of Silvio Berlusconi? The former prime minister having been found guilty of fraud and under-age sex among other things. Politics in Italy – like it is in lots of places – has become incredibly dirty. Maybe it always has been but they’re just getting found out more these days?
It was not to be my last political thought on the trip either. In Rome, I got talking to two German travellers in our hostel and the question of Brexit inevitably came up. It felt as if they were offended by the EU divorce and I understand that. As a traveller, one of my biggest concerns about the whole Brexit situation is how it affects our relations with those from the continent. But more than that, it has effected how I Feel about UK too. Sometime I wonder if Britain is the parts the North Sea didn’t want. It is not only Italian politics which is disillusioning. The UK is in just as sorry a state. In fact Italy and the UK share a common theme right now, as the two worst run economies in the developed world, so there we go.
Our stay in Rome was less comfortable, staying at Youth Station Hostel (from €13 dorms, privates €50 pn) in the north-east Bologna area of central Rome. The room was cold and not as clean and comfortable as the photos online had portrayed but it was the first place we had any social interaction. We got into a few conversations with our fellow guests and enjoyed that part immensely. It was also the only place were the staff talked to me on the same level – no sirs here, just a friendly handshake and an introduction from the reception staff.
Eating out in Rome was fun too, as we tried the ‘aperitivo’ buffet at a small and apparently mafia run bakery called Mizzica . For €10 we got a drink and all-you-can-eat style buffet in a great, lively atmosphere. We started the trip with a great restaurant and we were going to finish it that way too, when we ate in the small, family run Il Tunnel. Pasta each, bottle of wine and desert for around €40 and all done with great service. The staff made this place.
Interrailing is great. I love it and want to do it again. With a train system as good as Italy’s, it is simple and fast. Yes, there was a strike one day but if the unions of Italy feel the need to strike that’s fine by me – they run a tight ship the vast majority of the time. Here’s hoping Brexit doesn’t effect our rights to train passes and make Europeans hate us too much to enjoy travelling around Europe this way. You can check out the variety of rail passes available here from as little as just over €100 for one country passes.
For us, it was nice to have the treat of a luxurious hotel room and some first class trains in places but if I’m honest, I wouldn’t like to travel like this all the time. We enjoyed the mugs of wine and conversation that we had sat around the communal table of our Rome hostel but not the rough edges of the property. If you can find clean, well maintained hostels as you travel then I not only think this represents the best choice for your budget but also the best choice for company and conversation. The challenge is in finding those places without making a error and ending up a little uncomfortable.