Dustin and I got married last year (2015) in July. As our wedding approached, we spent almost just as much time researching where we wanted to go on our honeymoon as we did on planning the wedding. We knew we wanted to go somewhere that would be a once in a lifetime kind of trip. Somewhere that we might never have a chance to go again. We kicked around lots of ideas and changed our minds several times before we finally decided on a two and a half week self-guided trip throughout Italy.
We spent days researching unique places to visit and cool things to see while we were there. Every night after work we would come home and turn on You Tube to watch travelogues together of people who had traveled extensively in Italy. We gained a lot of great advice on how to get around Italy on a budget, how to use the train systems, the best ways to exchange money, how to pack in a carry on (believe me, as a girl who likes her accessories, this was tougher than it looked!), and we learned a lot about the must-see places in Italy which helped us to narrow down our list of places we wanted to visit.
We did not register anywhere for wedding gifts because we had each lived on our own for many years prior to the wedding and had already obtained many of the essentials needed to create a home together that are usually gifted at a wedding. However, in order to help us achieve our dream of traveling through Italy, my family decided to throw us a European themed Honeymoon Shower rather than a traditional Bridal Shower and encouraged guests to contribute to this fund if they wanted to give a wedding gift. Both the shower and the wedding turned out beautifully and Dustin and I were blown away by the generosity of our friends and family. We wouldn’t have been able to see or do nearly as much as we did without them and we are forever grateful for their kindness!
After checking all of our flight options, we quickly found that flights were much cheaper going from Chicago to Milan than they were to any other Italian city so we booked our flights on CheapoAir.com for $796 each (round trip) and decided that because of this, Milan is where our trip would begin. However, to get such a good price, we had to make a couple of compromises. Our flight didn’t leave until 10:45pm from O’hare Airport, which meant we had to fly overnight (neither of us sleep very well on planes) and the flight that we chose would stop in Istanbul for 3 hours before getting us to our final destination.
We decided that while in Italy we would use the extensive train system to get around. From large metropolitan areas to tiny, remote villages, almost every city in Italy is on the railway and it seemed like the easiest and most enjoyable way to get around. Oftentimes when we travel, we rent a car and Dustin usually does the driving so he doesn’t get to see as much. Riding the trains would allow him to sit back and relax and enjoy the journey. We opted for an 8 day rail pass that was good for most of the regional trains.
After months of anticipation, our vacation finally arrived! Unfortunately though, Dustin and I had passed a cold back and forth and mine was still lingering. My excitement trumped my sickness though and I was determined to get better. In fact, I’m pretty sure at least half of my carry on was full of Emergenc-C and vitamins! We flew through the night on Turkish Air and quickly learned why our flight was so cheap….because they crammed in about a million people with half an inch of leg room each! I was able to fall asleep off and on but Dustin wasn’t so fortunate and was awake most of the night.
Our flight stopped in Istanbul, Turkey for a 3 hour and 40 minute layover. A shuttle met us on the tarmac and took us to a small wing of the airport. It was unlike any other airport I had ever been to. Hot, stinky, dirty and jam-packed with irritable travelers in the same boat as us. It was neat to see all of the different cultures there though. After a long, sleepy wait for our connecting flight, we finally boarded the plane to Milan. We were exhausted by this time. Luckily due to the time change, we arrived around 10:30pm so we were able to go straight to bed upon arriving in Milan. When we got to the airport there, try as we might, we couldn’t figure out the Italian pay phones to call our hotel for the shuttle so we cautiously sought out a taxi that didn’t look like they would kidnap us and paid the driver to take us 10 minutes away to our hotel. It ended up costing about 25 euros but was worth it to finally be on our way to a bed!
The next morning we awoke refreshed and ecstatic to finally be in Italy! We took the hotel shuttle back to the airport where we caught a train that would take us to Saronno. From Saronno we switched trains to go to Como Nord Lago and arrived in stunning Como an hour or so later. Immediately leaving the train station there were magnificent views of Lake Como. We walked down the cobblestone sidewalks with our backpacks and rolling carry-on bags until we found the ferry docks. We had planned ahead of time to take a 2 hour slow ferry ride up the lake to our hotel in Menaggio so that we could be on the water taking in the scenery rather than cooped up in a bus. After checking the time tables, we realized we had arrived a little early so we decided to get breakfast at a cute little lakeside café across the street. This is where we had the first of many cappuccinos on our trip, and it tasted as good as it looked!
We found that most places accepted credit cards so long as they had a chip in them but we decided to stop at an ATM and take out some cash should we need it along the way. And that came in handy once we were on the ferry boat because we were able to buy a couple of drinks to enjoy and celebrate! The ferry ride was so relaxing and the mountain views were absolutely breath-taking! We saw many charming, picturesque little towns along the way and finally arrived in Menaggio around 2pm.
We stayed at an adorable little inn on the lake called Hotel Garni Corona. The owners were truly wonderful people and incredibly hospitable. After checking in, we went for a walk to explore this quaint little village and found that we were unable to peel ourselves from the stunning views of the walks along Lake Como.
Amidst our explorations, we came upon a boat rental place and spontaneously decided to rent a boat so that we could explore the lake at our leisure. It cost about 120 euros for 2-3 hours. We drove the boat north, even after being advised that the lake tends to get rougher the farther north you go. We tend to like to do the opposite of what is the safe route J We wanted to see how far we could go in the time that we had and ended up making it to the northernmost point of the lake. There we could see the snow-covered Swiss Alps and it was nothing short of amazing!
On the way back, we came upon a gorgeous house that I quickly dubbed “my house”. Later on, I learned that this was actually the house where the final scene of the James Bond movie Casino Royale was filmed at with Daniel Craig! What a fortunate accident it was to stumble upon this!
After a few hours, we returned the boat, feeling absolutely euphoric, and decided to get dinner at one of the outdoor cafes in the town square. This is where we met Jimbo, the pizzeria owner’s dog who freely wandered through the restaurant, occasionally wagging up to tables for some loving. After dinner we went and got some gelato around the corner. I tried a kind called “Stracciatella” and it was incredible! I think I had it about 10 more times after that throughout our trip!
Each morning our hotel had a fabulous breakfast spread with croissants, meats, cheeses, fresh fruit, yogurt, cereal, eggs, etc. The first morning we ate there, we arrived to a hustle and bustle outside the hotel in the town square. The owner of the hotel was peering out the window of the breakfast area so we too wanted to see what was going on. Apparently it was the start of a day long marathon race where participants would trudge uphill to the top of the mountain and back and we were able to see the start of it while eating breakfast.
After filling our tummies, we walked around the corner to the Tabacchi (tobacco shop) to buy some bus tickets to Argegno, a nearby town where there was a cable car system to take people up to a mountaintop village called Pigra. In Italy, tobacco shops are usually where you go to buy bus and train tickets. If all else fails and you can’t figure out where to buy tickets, wander in to the nearest tobacco shop and you will most likely be able to get what you need. The bus ride was an experience all on its own. The road follows the curves of the lake, twisting and winding beside it. We were quickly reassured of our plan to take public transportation throughout our trip rather than renting our own car. We came upon several tight squeezes that I wasn’t sure we’d be able to navigate without ripping a bumper off but somehow, the bus driver managed. We had seen several vehicles with rubber padding installed on the sides and suddenly it all made sense!
We arrived in Argegno just in time to catch the last cable car to the top before they closed down for lunch. Each day the cable cars stopped running from 12p-2:30p for an afternoon siesta. We fell in love with the slower pace of life in Italy and enjoyed exploring the rustic village of Pigra at the top of the mountain while the cars were shut down. After hiking around for a couple of hours and learning about the history of the town, we stopped at a small café for a bite to eat while we waited for the cable cars to get up and running again.
From Argegno, we had planned on taking the bus back just as we had come, until we realized that we could take the hydrofoil ferry back up the lake and get there much faster, and it would be a new experience, which I am always a fan of! We like to keep a loose schedule so that if things like this come up, then we can partake in them. We decided to get off at the Bellagio stop instead of Menaggio so that we could check out another town. For us, the town was pretty but highly overrated and ultimately, a little overpopulated for our taste due to tourists. Dustin and I prefer a lower key kind of place that feels more authentic versus touristy. Bellagio was also a lot more expensive than its quieter sister town across the lake where we were staying, so we headed back to our little haven for the evening.
That night we again went out for dinner in the square but decided to try a restaurant that was recommended by a few of the locals. We sat outside despite the cooler weather and enjoyed some authentic Italian lasagna and wine. We ordered what we thought was the smaller glass of wine but when it was served, we realized that it came in liters, not glasses, so we had more wine then we planned on! We ordered some tiramisu to go and then after dinner we walked around a bit more. We found a wine bar that let us buy a liter of wine to go so we bought some red wine and headed back to the hotel to enjoy our dessert and it was amazing!
The next morning our time on Lake Como had come to an end and we had to leave for our next destination. We hopped on the ferry and rode across the lake to Varenna where the train station was located. We were kind of sad that we didn’t have more time to spend in Varenna because it was such a charming little town but we vowed to come back someday. I think we could’ve easily spent the entire trip between all of the villages on Lake Como but we were also excited to see some other new places so we got on the train and headed to the Cinque Terre!