Infero. It was a fitting name for our July trip to Italy because we were going to Florence, the hometown of the writer Dante and his works on hell. Inferno is also the name of the famous Dan Brown book featuring Robert Langdon, symbologist hero extraordinare, who ventured through the nooks and crannies of Florence and Milan to ultimately save the world.
Inferno was the perfect word to describe our late honeymoon because, well, it was hot. Really hot. Like, hotter than Dante’s inferno hot. In fact, it was so hot, it was the the hottest summer ever recorded in Europe.
And with that, we left the temperate summer of the Pacific Northwest and descended into il inferno.
As always, travel tips at the bottom of the post.
Melting in Milan
“Mary,” husband said to me as he wiped sweat from his brow, “I think your love of Italy is the only reason you’re not miserable in this heat like me.”
Husband walked with a hunch, the heat of the sun literally beating him down. To avoid the brunt of the heat, we woke up at 6am to explore the city in the early morning hours; but even at 8am, the 35C degree (95F) temperature was palpable. We slathered ourselves in sunscreen, put on UV blocking hats, donned our sunglasses, and stuck to the shade.
Thankfully my survival through many sweaty and wet summers in Japan gave me endurance. However, the humidity was rough on husband. Growing up in the temperate climates of Scotland, Canada, and the Bay Area was not boding well for him in hot and humid Italy.
Around mid-afternoon, the hottest time of the day, we finally descended on Milan’s crown jewel: The Duomo. The Milan Duomo is one of those European masterpieces that will leave anyone breathless upon first gaze. Despite seeing multiple photos of Il Duomo online and on various travel videos, I was still dwarfed by the real deal.
The best part of the Duomo? The roof. It’s the only cathedral I’ve been to where visitors can literally walk the entire roof.
Walking the roof of the Duomo is a moment forever seared into my memory for three reasons: the absolute beauty of the architecture, the city views, and the intense ferocity of the sun drying me out into an empty husk.
When people say they are ‘melting,’ we all know they’re just complaining with a healthy dose of hyperbole. Well, on the roof of the Duomo, I can say that we were melting with absolutely no hint of exaggeration. I honestly felt like my skin was sliding off my face and onto the stonework of the Duomo roof beneath me, forever meshing itself with history. I thought husband was going to have a heat stroke and hobble off the roof in a daze of heat exhaustion.
Luckily, we didn’t die on the Duomo (although we came close). We survived. In fact, when I read the news later that day, I realized that the exact moment we were on the roof of the Duomo was the zenith of Milan’s heath wave: it was 40C (104F) when we were on that roof (!).
To stand testament to the beauty of the Duomo, I must admit: I would do it all over again, even in 40C temperatures.
Lake Como: A Lake Getaway and Natural Sauna All in One
A while back, husband asked me: “among all the places you’ve been, what place would you consider the most beautiful?”
I had to think long and hard about it, but in the end I uttered two words: Lake Como. Lake Como is a tranquil getaway of nature, architecture and culture that seamlessly blends together to make it seem like you literally walked into a European painting. In Lake Como, families ride bikes along the seaside; couples hold hands while traversing mountain trails overlooking the turquoise waters, and friends can share a bottle of wine in magical garden terraces with a view of small, charming towns in the distance.
Again, like Milan, Lake Como was hell-blazing hot in July. One would think that a lakeside retreat would be cool and refreshing, but the valley of Lake Como allows it to trap in all that summer heat. Lake Como felt like a literal sauna in July, and I hope someday I can go back in the spring or fall and enjoy the views without the hot temperatures.
Firenze & the Palazzo
In high school, I was a complete art geek. The Renaissance bros were my personal favorite, with Da Vinci being my hero. It may sound silly, but I was absolutely star struck by the tombs in Santa Croce Cathedral that housed Machiavelli, Galileo and Michaelangelo all under one roof. These Italian dudes from the Renaissance were nothing short of celebrities in my eyes.
My favorite spot in Florence, hands down, was the Palazzo Vecchio, which was home to the original venture capitalists of their age: the Medici family. The Palazzo Vecchio’s grandeur was on-par with the Palace of Versailles in France. The work below, an unfinished piece by Da Vinci, was a floor-to-ceiling mural that left me dazzled for minutes (husband had to drag me to the next room).
Not only is the Palazzo Vecchio decked out in gold and tapestry and filled to the brim with priceless art, but it’s also got some of the best views in Florence. Pay an extra five euro to climb the watchtower and take in 360 panoramas of the city. The sight at the top is well worth the climb and the extra coin (even in the heat!).
The Heart of Tuscany
We’ve all seen that view of Tuscany either on TV or in a movie: rolling green hills, rows of cypress trees stretching back to the horizon, the soft orange glow of sunset on plentiful fields of grapes.
Well, I’m here to tell you Tuscany is exactly how you imagined it to be; in fact, it’s just as tranquil and idyllic as “Eat Pray Love” makes it look. Hell, it’s better than any movie–and I’m saying that despite experiencing it in the soul-crushing heat of Italy in July! I loved Tuscany so much, Husband had to drag my screaming body back onto the tour bus. I was loathe to leave my quaint Tuscan town with friendly locals and plentiful glasses of Chianti.
One of the true gems in Tuscany is Siena, a smaller city one hour outside of Florence. During the Medici reign Siena was a sworn enemy of Florence and, even today, the rivalry lives on. We were lucky enough to visit Siena during the festivities of “Il Palio,” which is their famous horse racing festival held every year. Although we were not there on the actual day of Il Palio, we saw the streets strewn with flags representing their team “cortada,” their local town district.
Finally, I just have to mention San Gimignano and tell everyone to spend the night there. We stopped there on a tour route and, after discovering this gem, kicked ourselves for not getting a hotel here. It’s a walled medieval village with history and charm; but more than that, it’s surrounded by ruins and amazing hiking trails. Plus, when the tourists vacate in the afternoon, the city dies down and becomes a romantic movie set of cobblestone streets and al-fresco dining. We didn’t get to try it, but we even saw a Michelin starred restaurant there offering five course meals for 70 euros!
Finally, the Food
My husband is not a “foodie.” When I’m away from home, he literally survives on foot-long Subway sandwiches. Until recently, husband saw eating food merely as a form of nourishment and nothing else.
Oh, but this was not the case in Italy. In Italy, husband was continually stunned by the quality of food we ate, even at casual joints with pasta as cheap as five euros. In fact, both of us agree that Italy is worth the visit for the food experience alone (and that’s saying quite a bit, coming from my husband).
I don’t know what the deal is, but pasta and pizza just taste so much better in Italy compared to the States. Maybe it’s the flour. Perhaps it’s the way Europeans grow vegetables and make cheese. I can’t put my finger on the exact reason why, but Italian food is better in the motherland.
I don’t think I need to convince anyone to go to Italy. It’s one of the top tourist destinations in the world for a reason. There is absolutely nothing to hate.
In the beginning, however, I had to sell my husband on Italy. When we planned our honeymoon and I suggested Italy, his face soured and he asked for a compromise: Italy for one week, Croatia for the other (husband wanted a beach honeymoon). We agreed, shook hands on it, and our honeymoon to Northern Italy and the Dalmatian Islands was a done deal.
In the end, despite husband’s heat exhaustion, he just had to admit: he enjoyed Italy better than Croatia.
We both found Italy a very special destination that, without a doubt, we will return to again soon.
Tips for Travel: If You’re Going to Northern Italy in Summer…
- Try not to go in summer. I know. Easier said than done, but avoid it if possible.
- STAY IN SMALLER TOWNS. I can’t emphasize this enough. Husband and I realized that, instead of Florence, we should have “based” ourselves in Siena. Not only is this option more affordable, but you have less crowds and more intimacy with the local culture and people.
- Get up early and go to bed early. Luckily Italians aren’t as crazy as Spaniards and they eat dinner around 6-7pm (meaning, you can go to a restaurant at 6pm and they’re open). This way you avoid the brunt of the afternoon heat.
- BRING BUG SPRAY. Husband and I were eaten alive in Florence by mosquitoes. Mosquitoes are the last thing that come to mind when we think of the Renaissance; but trust me, you’ll be miserable without repellant in Firenze.
- We splurged and stayed one night at a villa with a pool and it was TOTALLY WORTH IT. It’s expensive to get a hotel with a pool, but after walking around in 100F degree weather for days on end, jumping into that pool was like swimming in the spring of life. I was heat-stroke healed.
- Be strategic in Florence, because I’m not exaggerating when I say that you could easily spend three weeks there and not see everything. If you attempt it, you might hobble off the roof of Palazzo Vecchio in a heat wave daze of fatigue.