We’ve only been back in Ottawa for four days and already Italy seems long ago and far away.

Rome was a faint memory when we arrived home a few nights ago, the wind blowing fallen leaves against my ankles as I fumbled in the darkness to unlock our back door, opened it to a slightly musty, closed-up-house smell, and glimpsed the film of dust on everything. Venice, and moonlit walks along the canal in Murano, seemed a lifetime ago as I winnowed down the mounds of laundry, hanging a load on the clothesline, then rushing out with the clothes basket when it began to rain, and then snow. Okay, it was only a few flakes. But still… snow!

View of Florence from Piazzale Michelanglo

Looking at our photographs of the blue, blue sky in Florence this morning, it’s hard to believe that we were even there. Florence, beautiful and ancient, is a favourite stop for many travellers. But sadly, not for us. Perhaps visiting Florence so close on the heels of Venice was a mistake on our part. Of course we thought it was beautiful. Wandering the narrow streets of the old city, climbing the hill to Piazzale Michelangelo, strolling along the Arno to get a better view of the Ponte Vecchio, it was all beautiful. But very, very crowded.

And when it’s very crowded, one doesn’t actually stroll at all. Shuffling, milling, maybe. The shot below was obligingly taken by a young American couple, after I had taken theirs. Since we were killing a half hour before we toured the Uffizi Gallery, we didn’t mind waiting patiently for a small space at the railing to get a good shot. Silly isn’t it? Everyone jockeying around to get their selfie and prove that they were there.
Stu and Sue do Florence with the Ponte Vecchio in the background

My favourite thing about Florence was the sculpture. Sculpture fascinates me. It boggles my mind how an artist can make stone look like it’s about to step down from its niche and speak to you.

I am in awe of sculptors. How do they make the soles of feet, or straining biceps look so real? See the harsh grip of the Roman’s hand on the buttock of the woman in Giambologna’s “The Rape of a Sabine Woman” below? The fingers actually press into her skin. “How do they do that?” I kept asking. Like Paul Newman’s refrain “Who are those guys?” in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, one of my favourite movies, I was a broken record. “How the heck do they do that?” I murmured to our guide, to Hubby, to the air. You can read more about Giambologna’s work here.
This work by Giambologna stands in the Loggia dei Lanzi, near the Uffizi Gallery

But, you know, it’s hard to stand in awe, gazing upward, when one is being buffeted by seething crowds of other tourists, elbows up, desperately trying to move past you and not lose contact with their group and their flag-waving guide. As Hubby says, “It kind of takes the edge off,” by which he means, “Let’s get the heck out of Dodge.” So we did.

Somewhere in Tuscany, enroute from Florence to Urbino

We headed out of Florence for the beautiful, old, walled city of Urbino. This was more our style of travel, open countryside, more trees, and fewer people.

View of Urbino from the topmost set of stone steps that snake up, down, and all around the old city.

Look, Ma, no crowds in Urbino.

Outside of Urbino, we stayed the night at a small “country house,” in a room at the top of a set of stone steps, with a view to die for. That’s Hubby, below, standing at our window in the dawn light. He looks like a painting, doesn’t he? The night before, we’d bundled up to enjoy a glass of wine on our own private terrace, and then toddled off to a wonderful dinner at the on-site restaurant. I had truffle risotto. It was heavenly. The only disappointment was at breakfast the next morning when we learned that the chef had been up at dawn to collect truffles and Hubby could have joined him if he’d known.

Dawn at Country House Ca’Vernaccia, near Urbino. No filter, I swear.
The next night we stopped near the old town of Norcia whose lovely historic buildings were so damaged by the 2016 earthquake. Norcia is struggling to rebuild, and, despite the plethora of scaffolding and building sites, is very much open for business.
Rebuilding work in the town of Norcia

The local speciality, norcineria, wild boar and pork, ham and sausages named for the town
We sampled some of the local wares at dinner that night at our accommodation, another wonderful “agriturismo.” How can you not love a place that has donkeys, eh?
The donkey paddock at Agriturismo Il Casale Degli Amici outside of Norcia

Our journey through the Tuscan and Umbrian countryside had been lovely, but we were bound for more remote parts of the country, and those tiny roads that we love to drive. Hubby had read about a place called Campo Imperatore, a high mountain plain also called “Little Tibet,” in Gran Sasso e Monti Della Laga National Park, in Abruzzo. And we wanted to see it. The difficulty was getting accurate information about the condition of secondary roads which may have been affected by the earthquake. The lovely girl at our accommodation in Urbino who spoke perfect English could not help. And the host at our Norcia accommodation seemed to have more knowledge of the roads we would travel in our ongoing journey, but not enough English with which to share it. We’d had trouble already, and had to turn around once and retrace our route when we encountered a closed road barrier and two puzzled motorcyclists stopped at the barrier, scratching their heads.

So when we left Norcia we hoped to find a tourist information office, or a helpful local, at a town further along. We’d both read about the earthquakes in 2016, Hubby had communicated with my friend Liz’s brother who lives in Abruzzo, and we’d already seen the damage in Norcia, but none of this prepared us for our first sight of Amatrice. We drove past a military vehicle and two soldiers, around a turn, and down a street that was walled with wooden hoardings behind which was total devastation, piles of rubble, and the skeletons of buildings. It felt like a war zone, and I whispered to Hubby, “Should we even be here?” We felt like voyeurs. And I remembered an article I’d read in which the mayor of Amatrice railed against insensitive, selfie-taking tourists, who stood amid the rubble, smiling, to have their picture taken.
Some of the devastation in Amatrice where a 2016 earthquake killed almost 300 people.
Further along, in a street that was relatively unaffected, we parked and stood for some time talking to two local young men who’d been passing. They seemed to want to chat about the earthquake, and if their town will be able to recover. As one of them said, many have left, some want to remain, but whether we leave, or stay and work to rebuild, it is “all difficult.” When Hubby showed them our map they understood where we wanted to go and assured us that all the roads had been repaired and were open. But that was only after a Monty Python-esque moment when I mispronounced the word “closed” in my mangled Italian. They both brightened, and one grabbed the map, and began to point out a route, and talk rapidly, “Yes. Yes, you will like Chooso.” Or something that sounded like “Chooso.” Maybe it was “Cheeso?”  “No, no, not ‘Chooso,’ ‘chiuso,'” I said, and with fumbling fingers I managed to translate “which roads are closed” into Italian on my phone translator, and then showed him the screen instead of trying to say it correctly, and confusing them further. Then we all had a good laugh. “Parlo male italiano.” I’ll have to remember that line, I thought.
Somewhere between Amatrice and “Little Tibet”
And so we were off, not to “Chooso,” but to the high Apennines and “Little Tibet,” where the crowds of Florence will be forgotten and the views will be magnificent. But I think I’ll save the rest of our journey for another day.

Today, I’m still busy doing laundry, changing bed linen, hauling out the down-filled duvet, and washing and putting away my summer clothes.

I must say, Ottawa weather was a bit of a shock for us after balmy Rome. But still. There have been compensations for the cold, and the snow flurries, and the many tasks that always need doing when we’ve been away for a while.

Like mashed potatoes; I always miss mashed potatoes when we’re travelling. And tea and toast, and a good long read. And the wonderfully luxurious feeling last night of sinking onto the couch in front of a roaring wood fire, stocking feet propped on the coffee table, wine glasses in hand, deciding if we should make popcorn or not.

Italy was wonderful. Travel is wonderful. But, you know, the very familiar view from our couch of the Rideau River, and the geese gathering as dusk falls, isn’t so bad either.

Now, what have you been up to my bloggy friends? We haven’t chatted in ages. I wasn’t able to respond to your comments on my last post from Agerola, but I’m ready to talk now.


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43 thoughts on “Italy: The View from My Couch”

    1. I'm imagining travelling to Europe by ship, with huge hard-sided trunks, and staying in each place for a month. Like in an Agatha Christie movie.

  1. Aw, welcome home to mashed potatoes! Looking forward to hearing about the rest of your travels – I can wholly understand why you prefer the smaller and more tucked-away locations. I had trouble with Florence and Venice both when I visited in summer, Rome in January however was spectacular.

    1. It was so funny on the plane, Lisa. Stu and I were near the back in a row of three seats and I was in the middle. Dinner choices were pasta or chicken. When the attendant served from the right aisle, I asked for chicken, but she only had pasta left. I sat there with it on my tray eating my salad until the flight attendants came down the other aisle, on Stu's side. He whispered to the girl,"We've been eating pasta for 3 weeks, any chance you can swap my wife's dinner for chicken?" She winked, took my pasta and handed me a chicken. Chicken and mashed potatoes, I might add; I was in raptures!

  2. Welcome back! Although I'm welcoming you back to the snowy part of Canada while I'm enjoying October sunshine with mid-teens temps. . . our rains will be here soon, though, to even the score 😉
    I've heard your plaint from most friends and family who have visited Florence in the last few years — it's not the city Diana Athill wrote about! — but we were there November before last and liked it very much, the difference probably being that the crowds fall off a little as weather gets a bit cooler and greyer. . . Your travel off the more obviously beaten tracks paid off well — you stayed in some wonderfully picturesque places. And now you can recall them, fireside in your own favourite chair. xo

    1. Thanks, Frances. We'd considered leaving on October 15, instead of returning then, but Stu was talked out of it by a friend who's been to Italy many times, saying that the weather would be bad. We're now regretting that we didn't stick to our original plan. Still we did have beautiful weather. And we did find those little jewels that make a trip worthwhile.

  3. Leslie in Oregon

    You and your husband are my (and my husband's) kind of travellers. I travelled all over Europe at age 17 and from age 21 to 31 (i.e., in the mid and late sixties to the late seventies). (I was a high school then college exchange student for two years, worked and wandered in Europe after college, and was cabin crew for Pan Am for eight years.) I knew during those travelling years that I was incredibly fortunate to be able to live and travel in abroad, and now I know that even more. So much of what I was able to do would be impossible now (and, as far as the flying goes, terribly uncomfortable). That includes spending much of one October and one April in Florence, amidst people on the streets but no crowds and with no long lines and last-minute ticket to concerts easily obtained. I doubt that I will return to Florence or any of the cities most popular with tourists, but I will return as often as possible to places that are off the beaten path. Thank you for your first-person verification that such places still exist in Italy. Looking forward to more of your stories, Leslie

    1. Thanks, Leslie. Our two trips to Europe in the past few years have been because I'd never been. We've never had to plan a trip around whether there will be crowds or not, but we've learned our lesson. We thought that the massive crowds at Versaille in 2015 were just bad luck, for us an anomaly. But as I said to Stu, I guess they were more of a harbinger than an anomaly. Actually we've been thinking of putting Oregon, Montana, Idaho etc on our list of possible destinations.

  4. Your choices were very wise-now it is all about the experience,athmosphere,people,nature,profumi e sapori….
    It was nice to see some sights,galleries and monuments,to admire it in real life in the past,but now there are too many people in all the famous destinations that one loses patience,time and joy,waiting or hustling through the crowd. I still remember my first visits to Venice,Rome,Florence,Capri,Napoli…..and the last ones-what a difference!
    But,still,even in those cities, there are hidden treasures and better times to visit.
    My most visited cities lately were London and Vienna ("following" my son's transfers)-I still have found London in February and Vienna in October so lovely,but out of the turist's paths,following the slow rhythm….
    And it is always so nice to return home
    Looking forward next episode….

    1. As I said to Leslie, I'd never been to Paris, Rome, Florence, Venice etc, so we had to try to see the spots that really should be seen. But we're reassessing our travel philosophy since we've been home. Especially since we know that those huge crowds are going to be everywhere that's popular. Prague has come off our list for the time being. But we're thinking of Georgia, Croatia, etc.

  5. Welcome back Sue, good to hear from you. Your experience of Florence seems very similar to ours. We’re finding more and more when travelling, that the unexpected and the “road less travelled” places are the ones we enjoy the most. Looking forward to hearing more about your travels. We’re experiencing the most beautiful weather and stunning Autumn/Fall foliage while travelling in Europe.

    1. It's like late November here. Still cosy with a fire and a cup of tea, though. Especially since I caught a cold from the sneezing, coughing man who sat next to me on the plane. Not Stu… the guy on the other side:)

  6. I meant to add, that for some reason my comments have been “disappearing” recently … no idea why! Suddenly realised I could comment again, whilst sitting in a car park in France! ?

    1. Heading into Belgium and then home … wondering, did you receive the email I sent you in September re your travels and mine, when I began having problems commenting? Also, I agree about Florence being quieter in the evenings…. and in the VERY early morning! ?

    2. Gosh, I can't remember, Rosie. Was that the e-mail about going to Cornwall etc for your birthday? Several people are having trouble commenting, I know. I don't know whether it has to do with the new GDPR privacy regulations or not. I've upgraded my blog from http to https (which is more secure), and added the other stuff (about cookies, and a privacy policy etc) that the new regulations required, so not sure why that would be happening if that's the issue. When I'm home from New Brunswick, and after my cataract operation in December (I know!) I plan to really buckle down and try to iron out some blog issues. As well as upgrading my format … maybe… if I get the courage. I'm always afraid that I will mess something up and not be able to undo whatever I've done. English teachers do not make good techies:)

  7. Well that’s nice , a comment worked ! Have enjoyed our trip to Italy with you & totally agree with the crowds business . It means lots of research is needed to discover out of the way places . Stu has obviously worked hard finding hidden corners . Even parts of our favourite Scotland are suffering from being too popular ( like Skye ) which changes the very nature of them at times . Plenty of wildness left – but it’s best kept secret .
    Wendy from York ( in a secret part of Scotland just now )

    1. Welcome back, Wendy. We found Skye crowded when we were there briefly in 2005. Orkney, on the other hand, was divine. Stu is a master researcher and planner. Much better than I am. I get distracted with a reference to something I read in a book and hive off in a new direction. Must be some squirrel in my Sullivan genes:)

  8. Welcome home, Sue and Stu! You really did find some lovely places (outside the big cities) to visit.

    I share your frustration with crowds and bustle even when I visit US cities, e.g., the Bay Area, DC, Manhattan. Although I love visiting urban museums and other arts offerings, I also try to plan to spend precious time in nearby places I love, e.g., Big Sur, West Virginia, Central Park. I need to sample both sides of those mushrooms to feel I've had a full trip. Perhaps that's why road trips please me so much.

    And you're absolutely right — there's no place like home! This winter there'll be plenty of time for your latest Italian travel memories to marinate and turn into the insights you were seeking when you planned this trip.

    But mostly … thank you so much for all your beautiful travel photos and stories! They help me to reconsider the kinds of travel experiences that will most please me.

    Ann in Missouri

    1. I think that if we'd stayed right in the middle of the big cities, like we did in Rome, we might have had a slightly different experience. Maybe Florence empties out after dark when the large groups go back to their large hotels? BUt we had a wonderful B&B with free parking, huge grounds, antiques everywhere, and an enormous kitchen where we made our own supper one night and did a laundry, so it was a trade off.
      We talked to travellers we met on the trip and are currently reassessing our ideas of what to do next. No big cities for Stu, he was totally put off city travel on this trip.

  9. Your pictures are bringing back wonderful memories of our trip last year just a bit later than yours. We were also in huge crowds, but I didn't mind them as much. Or maybe I've just forgotten the worst crunches. I think they were on the shopping streets around the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio. We also did really early morning tours, which I think helped. That said, our favorite part was in the hills of Umbria and Assisi in particular.

    It is nice to be in my own bed after a trip, though. And, although the weather has turned here too, I do love the fireplace and a good book. 🙂 Looking forward to the next installment of your Italy adventure.

    1. Yes, the huge crowds were in all the places you'd expect. I found that I wasn't even looking at anything when we walked since we were worried about getting separated. And standing and looking up was almost impossible. The Uffuzi and the Vatican were the worst.
      But I've more positive things to write about in my next post than whining about crowds. It's just that we did not expect them to be so bad and wish that our friends had said something. So I don't want to gloss over what was for us a real problem.

  10. While exceedingly frustrating at times, the overwhelming crowds seem nowadays to be a part of the European travel experience…I try to breathe deeply and pack a nice chunk of patience in my handbag before setting off for the day to partake in the tourist scrum. It seems that patience (and lots of it) is what is needed to view some of the iconic sights in Europe…lol. This planet is populated with many human beings and it's getting harder and harder to avoid crowds in popular destinations…for better or worse it seems to be part of embracing being a "tourist" in modern times. How lovely you were able to balance highly busy locations with much more tranquil ones. I've always been grateful to tour cities that are notoriously busy but it does makes me ever so grateful to return to my little corner of Canada to enjoy our home and garden in relative tranquility. Welcome home! Cheers, Alayne

    1. You are so right, Alayne. Patience is needed when touring popular sites. And even though ours ran out at times, we still enjoyed our trip overall. Especially when we could get away from the crowds. Makes me very happy to be home, though.

  11. Your trip sounds great especially when you were off the beaten trail! Just back from a 5 week trip to some big cities so can totally relate.
    2 weeks New York, Washington DC doing tourist things so lots of people…. followed by visiting friends and family in Montreal and Ottawa.
    We expected the crowds In Manhattan but were still surprised at the numbers! DC was not as busy, maybe because it is more "spread out" at the sites.
    Ottawa is a very pretty city and we really enjoyed the "fall rhapsody". We just don't have the beautiful autumn colours here….
    Thanks for posting. Welcome home, Suz from Vancouver

  12. It looks like a wonderful trip! We're not much for crowds either, but also not much for those little winding roads! The countryside looks beautiful, save the devastation from the earthquake.

    1. I don't know why but we do love little winding roads. Except when they are chock-a-block with traffic like on the Amalfi Coast. That's why we parked out car at our B&B and left it there for five days!

  13. My daughter got engaged in Rome last October! I enjoy reading about people's travels, but I don't care for travelling myself. Before I've even left on a trip, I'm dreading it, and already imagining being home. Too much anxiety for me, I try and avoid it as much as possible. But I enjoy reading & hearing about other's travel stories. Looking forward to future posts & pictures. Just don't ask me to get off the couch to go somewhere Lol

  14. Welcome home. Lovely photos and you seem to have had great variety of experiences. Agree with you about busy tourist attractions. Look forward to the next instalment. Iris

  15. Much of the problem in Europe is created by the huge amount of very, very large cruise ships now circling the mediterranean and calling in to ports with easy access to these old cities. Cruising has become very popular (and also cheaper and more accessible) the ships are getting bigger and there are many more of them. Thousands of people coming off each ship, the big ports will take two or three ships in every day ……result is chaos and overcrowding in places like Rome, Florence, Barcelona, to name but a few.

    1. Those big cruise ships are certainly putting a strain on lots of places. We've read about measures that might be brought in to control crowds. The ancient artwork, frescoes etc are even being damaged by CO2, I read, from the many tourists breathing and sweating in a small space. Seems counter intuitive to let the problem escalate unchecked. Of course the counter-argument is all about the local economies which depend on tourist dollars.

    2. When I was in Lisbon last month I saw evidence of this . When two cruise boats were berthed it was fine but one day there were five & there was a terrific difference . The cruise tourists see everywhere crowded
      Wendy from Yorks

  16. I loved seeing this post. We had a wonderful holiday in Tuscany last year. It is incredibly beautiful. Florence is so crowded these days it has been spoilt somewhat. I'm so pleased we got there before it got so bad. My couch at home has a view of trees – but I dream of a valley and sky – gotta love a trier haha xx Maria

  17. What a pleasure to read your blog, Sue. I've spent the last couple of hours lost in your past posts, realizing that we share way more than chosen profession, proximity and stage of life. Many of your memories remind me of mine. Thank you for bringing your sunshine into my snowy Sunday afternoon.

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