Even before we crossed the border into Italy from Switzerland, my girlfriend Thyme was coming down with the flu. In the dreamy green wonderland of the Swiss Alps, it seemed bearable for her. The clean, air-conditioned trains, the affordable hostels, and the polite service were all enough to warrant off her full fledged sickness, but in the moment after transferring trains in Turin, the crumbling infrastructure, the tardy, crowded, and humid rail cars, as well as the locals smug response to tourists had Thyme’s mild annoyance accelerate into a debilitating illness. Or at least it seemed that way.
Finally pulling into Cinque Terre after an unbearably hot train ride down the coast full of blabbering locals, we had to then trek up the cliffs to our hotel, which would have been fine, but Thyme was coming down with a very bad fever. Sweating profusely, we carried the contents of our lives for the next three weeks on our backs. Thyme was pale and completely miserable, collapsing on the bed as soon as we made it to the room. Needless to say, I spent the next two days in Cinque Terre on my own.
First, I walked down to the cobblestone alleyways lined with vendors up to the ocean. There were houses above them, and you could see the beautiful cliffs and blue water below. I paced around the alley trying to find a suitable restaurant for take out. After finding the right place, I ordered a few different courses including spaghetti alla pescatore and pizza napaoletana. I took it back to the room for us to eat. It was good, but not great. I was underwhelmed by the first Italian food I had, but hey, I thought, that was just takeout. But wait! It gets worse!
The next day I hiked around Cinque Terre by myself while Thyme rested. From our hotel in Riomaggiore I aimed to take the famed Via dell’Amore, but the path was closed by a gate. A few young hikers hopped the fence and I decided to follow them. Besides the crumbling path at some points on the trail, the views of the blue ocean and sharp cliffs were pretty, not unlike my native California. I walked to Manarola and took a swim in the water. There were locals all over, jumping in the ocean, sun bathing on the rocks, and dipping their feet off the dock. Amongst some unfortunate trash, a jellyfish was spotted and the area we were swimming in emptied quickly.
Returning to Riomaggiore after my hike, it was time for some lunch. I decided to try some the famed fried fish with potatoes and marinara sauce at one of the many stalls around Cinque Terre. It hit the spot. I went back to the hotel to freshen up, see Thyme, and read for a bit. Before I knew it, it was time for dinner. I took a table at the restaurant near our hotel. Though I cannot remember the name for the life of me because I’m writing this a few years later, I ate some delicious ravioli con noci, a glass of red wine, and tiramisu for dessert. Feeling lonely at my solo dinner, I listened to the waves crash on the shore and felt the wind blow my hair as I romantically sipped my wine.
After another day of lounging about by myself, relaxing, swimming in the ocean, and eating more touristy, mediocre, overpriced Italian food, I was forced to coerce Thyme out of bed and onto another train to Rome. In another late, hot, and smelly rail car, we passed through Florence and Pisa, and taking in the rolling green hills of Tuscany.
Finally making it in to Rome, Termini station was revoltingly filthy and stunk like a rotten dead rodent. It quickly became apparent that to backpack through Italy is to struggle through Italy. Our hotel was a shithole, but was still expensive. We were fairly close to some sites, but here it couldn’t have felt further away. First things first, we needed to take Thyme to a doctor. After struggling to find the hidden office, we just barely made it in before Thyme fell to a high fever. She made it, flush in the cheeks, pale, and completely miserable. We get an antibiotic prescription, and the one good thing was that the prescription was cheap. Then, I took her back to the hotel and went out for some sight seeing. I was told once to walk through Rome aimlessly and allow the beautiful structures to sneak up on me. And they did. Slowly, I began to realize Rome is indeed crumbling. The Fontana di Trevi was shut down for repairs and was not worth seeing out of commission. Ancient structures covered in graffiti, old architecture poorly taken care of. The Pantheon was probably my favorite ancient sight to see, it remains stocky and stout after thousands of years.
The next day Thyme was just barely well enough to join me in sightseeing. The Catacombs are at the end of an opulent shopping district, which I found humorous. They are still a glorious sight to see. Then, we went to the Colosseum. This was the middle of summer and we couldn’t bear the heat to wait in the immensely long line to go into il Colosseo. Still, it was amazing to see , but desperately needs restoration. The structures are so old, but it doesn’t seem like there has been enough of an effort to keep them sturdy. If they make the government money, it seems that everything is fine by their standards. Then, we go to the Vatican, but again, we saw the line and turned around. Thyme was simply not in the condition to wait for hours in the heat, and frankly it sounded awful to me as well. We were fine with catching a mediocre meal in the Campo de’ Fiori and some gelato in the shade. Now that, that was good. We walked up the Spanish Steps on our way back to the hotel.
Then, we were off to Venice, where the bad time got worse. We get let off from our forever-tardy train on the dry side of Venice and had to take a bus to get into the tourist district. The rest of the city, I should add, was another mistreated ancient city that receives no funding in the parts that aren’t touristy. Then, once we get to the water, the city was romantic like they said, but we waited for about an hour for the ferry with our packs weighing us down, beaten up by the trip, and sweating like crazy. The ferry wasn’t running for some inexplicable reason, so we waited. We could have rented a gandola, but it was 80 Euros for a short ride. Finally, the ferry came and we made it to our hostel, which wasn’t pleasant either. Comparatively to the rest of our backpacking trip, the hotels and hostels where we stayed were filthy, without air-conditioning in the unbearably hot Italian summer, and without adequate maintenance. When we tried to open the door to our room, the key wouldn’t unlock it. We get the guy that the front to take a look at it, and he simply threw his hands in the air and told us there was nothing he could do.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said.
“Give us your room then,” Thyme said.
After a smattering of excuses from the guy that ran the place, Thyme said, “Then take me to the fucking hospital then, I’m very sick. I can’t stand my fever.” She began to cry.
Still, there was not much sympathy from this guy. We ultimately convinced him to call a hotel and reserve us a room. We walked miserably through the dark alleyways, hungry from the awful day of traveling, and couldn’t find the hotel on our GPS. We walked and walked down the ominous alleys with the sweat flowing from our backpacks and the terrible heat, and couldn’t find it for another hour. By the time we got to the tiny room, everywhere for dinner was closed and we went to bed hungry, waking up hourly in the hot, humid, dump of a room.
The moment we woke up the next morning, I said, “Let’s get the fuck out of this country.”
We took the next train out of Venice, not before eating some bland pizza and walking around St. Peter’s Square. It is a historic and interesting place to go, but is filled with annoying tourists ignorant of such significance.
We made into Austria on our way to Slovenia, and everything, Thyme’s sickness, the trains, the cleanliness, the demeanor of the people who worked in service, and the overall quality of sight seeing improved incredibly and we spent the rest of our backpacking content and excited.
Now, I know there are a variety of reasons we got it wrong. Sickness was the first. Our naivety that we could find good Italian food anywhere in Italy was another. The complete lack of friendliness in service was a third. The crumbling ancient infrastructure a fourth. The unbearable heat was a fifth. And lastly, and the worst of all, is that you will only have a great time in Italy if you are loaded with cash. So that’s my advice for going to Italy–have enough money to blow and perhaps you can have air-conditioning, an adequate place to stay, good food, and maybe, just maybe, people will treat you right.