A Vantage writer’s postcards from Italy

Sarah Sweeney July 22, 2018

Confession: A ’90s movie starring Liv Tyler inspired my lifelong dream to travel solo to Italy.

Director Bernardo Bertolucci’s moody, sensual Stealing Beauty traces the coming-of-age of Lucy (Tyler), who discovers romance, art, and family secrets in the rustic Tuscan countryside. Forget the storyline, though — it was the scenery that captivated me when I first watched this film as a teen. The green hills, Renaissance architecture, and endless vineyards bathed in light seemed a world away from my North Carolina home, and I couldn’t wait to get there.

I might’ve waited a long time (20 years!) to get there this past May, but I needed the experience to be perfect, which is why I love traveling solo. I took inspiration from Vantage’s sweeping Italian Train Adventure: Magical Lakes, Eternal Cities & the Amalfi Coast, traveling by train to Venice, Florence, and Rome — with a Chianti detour, of course.

Here are a few delicious highlights:

VENICE

From the moment I landed in Venice, I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face. I loved traveling by water taxi from the airport to Venice’s main island, which felt like entering a painting. Lazy gondolas sailed into the pastel sunset as I wandered through cobblestoned corridors that evening, stopping for an aperitivo — my first autentico Aperol Spritz! — in one of the city’s myriad wine bars.

I’d come to Italy for the art, the history, the culture — but I’d also come for the food. Let’s be real. In Venice, I was most excited to sample cicchetti, small snacks similar to Spanish tapas that are traditionally served in Venetian bàcari.

Most cicchetti are little crostini — think bread slices smeared with ricotta and topped with shaved prosciutto — and I loved trying different offerings at each bacaro I ventured to. Being solo, I chatted up a few patrons including a local musician named Fabrizio, whose local insight gifted me one of the most delicious foods along my journey — saor.  This sweet and sour snack combines piquant sardines, caramelized onions, and juicy raisins for the perfect bite. Here in America, the sardine is woefully underappreciated, but alongside baccalà, it’s a true Venetian staple.

TUSCANY

Soaring by train through the Venetian outskirts, bypassing Bologna and into the fabled Tuscan landscape, I shivered with excitement as we pulled into Florence’s Santa Maria Novella train station.

Just like you’ll do on Italian Train Adventure, I made art a priority here, visiting both the Uffizi and Accademia Galleries. But Italy is a true feast for every sense. Almost every dinner involved wild-boar pappardelle or luscious cacio e pepe, featuring pasta coated in flambéed Pecorino. Not to mention daily gelato. So much gelato. What’s great about traveling to Italy with Vantage is the free time to explore these cities on your own, because there’s so much to do! Churches and gardens, museums and shops . . . Florence is known for its fashion and leather goods, and I had to buy an extra suitcase just to house all my wares. Consider yourself warned. 

Naturally, I had to venture into the Chianti countryside for the complete culinary experience, which you’ll get to do, too. On a tour of the region’s select wineries, I fell in love all over again with these breathtaking landscapes, cursive back roads, and rustic simplicity. Not even the afternoon rain could dampen my mood and, as I soon learned with the emergence of a double rainbow, even bad weather proves beautiful in Tuscany.

ROME

Italy’s Eternal City completely floored me. Every corner, alleyway, and square housed an iconic painting, statue, or sculpture. While sampling beer made by local monks during my first night, I made friends with a U.S. Navy pilot who was stationed in Sicily. He’d come to Rome for the evening — and it was his birthday! A trip from the bartender inspired us to seek out the Jerry Thomas Speakeasy, which, to my surprise, was an authentic speakeasy. We needed a password just to get in the door!

As you’ll see with Vantage — Rome is full of revelations. You’ll get a day to explore Rome however you want, and I can’t recommend enough a visit to the Colosseum. Yes, it’s touristy, but seeing the scale of this building and stepping inside its ancient walls was absolutely electrifying. Of course, you must visit the Trevi Fountain and toss a coin with your right hand over your left shoulder to ensure a return trip to Rome.

That night, as I crossed the river into the city’s hip Trastevere neighborhood for dinner, I stood in a public green space overlooking the entire city. Rome’s lights blinked back at me, and while my Italian spree would soon come to an end, I didn’t have time to be sad.

I knew I’d be back. And soon.

Follow in my footsteps — and visit Italy’s Lakes District, Naples, Sorrento, and the Amalfi Coast on Vantage’s Italian Train Adventure: Magical Lakes, Eternal Cities & the Amalfi Coast.