Winter vacations are my favourite. Infact, the season is my favourite time and rightly so cause who isn’t looking forward to wearing hoodies and sweatshirts after the scorching Bombay October wave? I always make it a point to plan my winter vacations 6 months in advance so I can get good deals on flight tickets thereby keeping the budget of the trip in check. Since last year was all about beaches, I thought let’s experience the touted Christmas markets in some of the favourite winter cities of Europe. I started looking for tickets and Air Italy had just launched in India and was giving a lucrative return airfare from Mumbai to Milan for just 28000 INR per person (35000 with luggage). Since my to and fro destination was the same, the entire itinerary had to be planned accordingly.
We booked a flight to Rome on the same day we were landing in Milan since the plan was to celebrate Christmas in Florence and New Years in Vienna. Since we covered quite a number of cities in 15 days, I will write about each city in detail, places I covered and tips for travellers.
Rome, hands down has become one of my favourite go-to cities in Europe after Paris. I am sure this list will become bigger with every passing trip to a new European country but now I know why people say even 15 days is less in Rome. It has so much to offer that you will need time to simply bask in the vibe of this historical marvel. We were staying in Generator Rome which was in the central part of Rome. The first evening we just walked around to familiarise ourselves with the surroundings. Italian cuisine is one of my favourite all time mood boosting cuisines and I was really excited for trying everything for the next 15 days. My first evening meal was pasta in white sauce and wild mushrooms.
Breakfasts are really important for me during any trip so the pursuit to hunt for the best breakfast place is even greater. Panella was a cafe which was close to our hostel and the walk to the cafe was through a beautiful garden. It’s one of the oldest cafes in Rome that houses all kinds of organic pastas, risottos and every flour on earth possible. I had gotten hooked onto the Marochhino and that was going to be my coffee during this trip. We went for three different kinds of croissants: one filled with nutella and other with custard cream. I had never ever tasted such fine custard cream ever and everything was being served fresh from the kitchen.
We finally started our day by walking through the pretty lanes of Trastevere which is a bohemian funky mosaic tiled neighbourhood in Rome that houses some of the cutest cafes and gelato centres. We passed through some of the iconic places such as Spanish steps, the Roman Forum and finally ended the walk at the most historical marvel I have ever seen- The Colosseum. I didn’t know much about its history until I went there and read about the kind of patience and hardwork it had taken to build, maintain and preserve this amphitheatre. There are a number of amphitheatres around Italy but this one particularly stands out cause of its design, size and the number of people it could accommodate at that time (around 80,000 people).
The day ended with yummy cheese pizza filled with spinach at Farine la pizza and gelato at Verde Pistacchio. Both the places are must visit on your Roman trip.
After visiting the Vatican City in the morning we arrived at our second stop; Florence where we were going to celebrate Christmas. We were staying at Hostel Gallo d’Oro and hoping that there would be some Christmas party at the hostel but to our surprise there wasn’t any so we decided to head to the Piazza Duomo which was very close to our hostel and witness the mass during Christmas eve. The Duomo is another beautiful sight in Florence with really intricate and beautiful Gothic artwork. It’s truly marvellous, both inside out.
Since the hostel wasn’t planning any activities, Couchsurfing proved to be a really helpful app. There are a number of events and parties listed in the city that you are currently in. We became a part of a group (which had two fellow Indians and a fellow hostel mate). We all decided to watch the sunset by Piazzalle Michelangelo which offers a beautiful panoramic view of the entire city of Florence. It was one of the most serene views with the cold winter breeze making its presence felt on your skin.
Next morning we left for Pisa since it was just an hour and a half by train. I had a choice between either Pisa or Cinque Terre and since we had only limited daylight available and Cinque Terre in itself required 2 days to be explored at ease, we chose Pisa. I didn’t want it to be a touch and go kind of an exploration so I decided to keep Cinque Terre for summers. Pisa, again is a small beautiful town situated by the Arno river and the walk from the station to the structure was really beautiful.
For me the walk through tiny lanes leading to Pisa was beautiful than the structure itself since it was really crowded. But it’s an architectural marvel in itself which leaves you wondering in amazement with the kind of tilt it actually has.
Our next stop was perhaps one of the places I was really looking forward to during this trip- Venice. We were staying off the canal in a hostel called Anda Venice which was just a station away from the canal. The evening we arrived in Venice it was really cold (around 1-2 degrees) so we decided to relax in the hostel. We walked to grab some dinner and came across Via Viaggio, a road side stall that you must try for yummy hot pumpkin soup and mozzarella fritter.
Next morning was also foggy but we left for the canal city to see all the pretty canals and bridges that I had seen only in pictures so far. Venice has over 400 bridges that connect its several tiny lanes. It felt like the entire place belonged to us since it’s only in summers that tourist flock the canal land. After seeing the Bridge of Sighs and St. Mark’s Square, we decided to head to the neighbouring islands of Burano and Murano.
Burano is a small island located about 7 kms from Venice and has an array of colourful houses, each so different from the other that it looks like some of the best artists came together to paint the town. The women in the town earn their living through embroidery whereas the men rely on fishing.
After this we headed to another neighbouring island, Murano which is actually in between Venice and Burano. It’s famous for its glass factory but by the time we got there it was already dusk and the factory had shut but we decided to quickly stroll through the town before catching our next ferry. We came across a very pretty glass Christmas tree that was constantly changing its hues and I’m so glad we got to witness it.
The next day we planned an impromptu trip to another medieval town in Italy’s Veneto region, most famous for the setting for Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet. After checking in at our pretty hostel, Hostello which is located in the centre of the town, we went to the famous Juliet balcony which was thronged by tourists who had relentlessly queued up just to get a picture clicked in her balcony.
There is also a Colosseum like structure in Verona called the Verona Arena. We ended our day by enjoying the sunset by the beautiful Castelvecchio. We had made some friends at the hostel with who we later headed to Osteria Sottocosta, which is a massive city square with tons of eateries and pubs around it.
We had an afternoon flight next day from Venice to Vienna, our New Years destination. We were staying at the city centre at Wombats which is again one of the best hostels in Vienna. My only problem with huge hostels is that you rarely get a chance to mingle with others cause most of them are already travelling in groups. We reached pretty late on 30th so we decided to take it slow.
Our hostel was located at the periphery of Naschmarkt which is one of the most famous markets in Vienna selling all kinds of food (Lebanese, Turkish, German etc.), souvenirs and clothes in addition to the famous German vin brule, which is a saviour in the cold weather.
Next we went to Praters Amusement Park since one of my favourite movies, Before Sunrise is shot there.
We had joined a Couchsurfing group for NYE and it was fun to meet so many different kinds of people from all over the world, drinking and enjoying themselves. We went to watch the midnight firecrackers at the City Hall in Rathaus, which was an extravagant event in itself.
Next day we went for a quick day trip to Bratislava, the capital city of neighbouring country Slovakia. Honestly, we wanted to go to Salzburg but it wouldn’t have been possible to squeeze that in a day trip. That’s how we landed in Bratislava, in the hope for some snow. Although it did snow when we were at Bratislava Castle but I guess it’s only in January that you get to see actual snow all around. We decided to take shade in a 150 year old cafe L’Aura and took a stroll around St. Martin’s Cathedral.
Another place of historical relevance that you should visit in Bratislava is the Slavin’s War memorial which has the graves of over 6000 Soviet soldiers.
We came back late in the evening to Vienna and ended our day with a pizza at our favourite and highly recommended place in Vienna, Frascati followed by the most important dessert that one mustn’t miss in Vienna- the Sachertorte at a vintage cafe, Kleines. The cake consists of two layers of dense chocolate sponge with a thin layer of apricot jam between them, all covered in a thick layer of shiny chocolate ganache. That’s not it. It’s served alongside a dollop of sumptuous serving of whipped cream. Tempting right?
We had a flight early morning for our final destination- Milan. We were staying off the centre and after we checked in, we left for the famous attraction that floods every search of Milan- the Duomo di Milano.
Just behind the Duomo is a famous street food joint that you shouldn’t miss on your Milan trip ever- the panzerotti at Luini. It has these different kinds of breads that are filled with a variety of fillings ranging from mozzarella and tomato, ricotta, olive, salami, vegetables etc.
We spent the day shopping in the city centre buying gifts and souvenirs for our friends.
Next morning we decided to go Lake Como, which seems to be the wedding destination for a lot of Bollywood couples off lately. The only thing I kept wishing to myself was the fact if we had stayed there cause it has a lot of pretty villages which takes an entire day on foot to explore. But whatever little time we had it indeed was marvellous.
And we ended our day by a quick stop in Turin cause we wanted to buy the chocolate from Guido Gobino where we also had this amazing coffee topped with thick chocolate and whipped cream and took some mouth watering chocolates to reminisce over the next few weeks.
Another pizza joint that you mustn’t miss if you are in Turin is La Pinseria. It’s a small joint which had some of the best pizza toppings I have ever had. Starting from the simple cheese and pesto to vegetable and mushroom pizzas. We stuffed some 6 pizzas since it was our last meal and I just couldn’t get over the taste of the crust that I had tasted in Italy throughout the trip.
And that was how my eventful winter vacation that will go down as one of the best vacations I have ever had came to a beautiful end. Or perhaps started a new love affair with yet another European country. I am sure I am going to return to Italy, soon.
PS: a tip for all those who really want to shop at Christmas markets. Make sure you plan your trip towards November and before Christmas so as to experience them in their full glory. Christmas and New Years Eve are extremely private affairs for Europeans and they prefer celebrating with their families. So make sure you keep that in mind before planning a vacation in Europe or anywhere in the West.
All images © Kainat27