Today marks the conclusion of our maiden trip to Italy and my first-ever trip to Europe. We dreaded the arrival of this day, as we had such great fun in Italy. We started our trip not knowing what to expect in Italy and how it will turn out. We were initially quite worried about our trip as we heard a lot about the pickpockets in major cities, the flooding in Venice and the scammers in Rome. As we travelled throughout the country, we came to release the country was very safe, and our worries were unfounded. We thought the Italians were cold initially, but they were very friendly and helpful once we chatted with them. The travels between cities were easy and efficient, thanks to the high-speed rail infrastructure. Looking back, I thought we could spend one more day in Milan, as we only had essentially half a day in Milan. There is more to see and do in Milan that cannot be covered in half a day. We could also cater more time for shopping. I only catered one day for shopping, thinking The Mall Firenze could satisfy our shopping needs, but it turned out The Mall was disappointing. As a result, we had to forego some sights in our plan. We had some fun experiences during the trip, climbing the Leaning Tower of Pisa, scaling up the dome of St Peter’s Basilica, getting lost in Venice, climbing up Mt Etna, etc. A summary of our 13-day journey through Italy:
Day 1: Milan – Arrival at Milan, Duomo di Milano, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Day 2: Milan – Lake Como (Verona, Bellagio, Como), Naviglio Grande
Day 3: Venice – Venice City on foot
Day 4: Venice & Florence – San Marco Campanile, San Giorgio Maggiore, Burano; Florence City at night (Duomo, Piazza della Signoria, Ponte Vecchio)
Day 5: Florence – Shopping at The Mall Firenze
Day 6: Pisa – Leaning Tower of Pisa and Pisa Cathedral
Day 7: Florence & Rome – David in Galleria dell’Accademia, Duomo, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon
Day 8: Rome – Colosseum and Palatine Hills
Day 9: Naples – Pompeii, Sorrento
Day 10: Vatican City – St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel
Day 11: Catania – Roman Amphitheater, Duomo,
Day 12: Agrigento – Valley of Temples
Day 13: Catania – Mt Etna
Day 14: Departure
Arrival at Istanbul
Our flight out of Catania to Istanbul was scheduled for 9.10 am. We left for the airport at 6 am, as we needed sufficient time to validate the tax-free purchases we had made for the past 13 days in Italy. We headed for the tax-free counter the first thing we arrived at Catania airport, located at the right corner of the airport terminal from the entrance in a very inconspicuous corner. After validating our tax forms, we proceeded to the airline counter to check in. Looking at the time, we still have some time left to enjoy a light bite at the airline lounge. Our flight finally took off at 10.20 am (some delays due to overbooking), and we landed in Istanbul at around 3 pm local time. Our plan today was to join the free tour that would bring us to some of the famous sights in Istanbul provided by Turkish Airlines. Turkish Airlines offered several tours in the city throughout the day (you can refer here for the Touristanbul schedules and itineraries) with different tour itineraries. However, I misread the timing, and we ended up taking only the shopping tour.
Shopping in Galataport, Istanbul
To register for the tour, we cleared immigration and looked for the Turkish Airline’s “Hotel Desk” counter. The way to the immigration was a tad far, and we had to ask the airport staff for directions to the immigration (it is not easy to find from the airside area) and then to the Hotel Desk counter to register for the complimentary tour provided by Turkish Airlines. Our tour begins with a Turkish dinner at a restaurant (paid for by Turkish Airlines). The food was delicious, and the meat served was tender. After dinner, we were driven to Galataport for the shopping trip. Galataport is a coastal, open-air shopping mall situated next to the Bosporus sea on the Europe side of the city. There weren’t many shops at the shopping mall selling goods. I estimated about 70% of the shops are restaurants. We spent the 1 hr allocated for shopping and walking along the coastline for the night Istanbul views of the Bosporus Sea. I’d say the shopping tour was a tad boring. I wouldn’t recommend the shopping tour as there was nothing at the mall to shop for. After the tour, we were driven back to the airport, where we took a shower and got ready for our flight home. Our flight departed Istanbul at 1.55 am, marking the end of our trip to Italy.
Today would be another highlight of our trip, we are hiking up Mt Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe. This is the very reason we included Catania in our Italian itinerary. We booked our guided tour with EtnAround, who was highly knowledgeable on the history, fauna and flora on Mt Etna (the same tour can be booked from here). We met up with one of our guides, Alessio, at the pick-up point at 8.30 am. Alessio drove us to one of the towns at the foot of Mt Etna to meet up with the tour leader, Marco, and the rest of the group and to get our sandwiches for lunch at Mt Etna. Along the way up to Mt Etna, Alessio continued introducing the flora at the base of Mt Etna. Before long, we reached a carpark of some sort. This was the starting point of our hike on Mt Etna. Marco explained that we were at 1,800m above sea level and would hike up to around 2,500m on the volcano before heading back down. As Macro and Alessio were preparing the gear for the group, we took the chance to take pictures of the surroundings. We could only see a vast piece of land and the road leading up to a small crater sitting far in the background.
And Our Hike Begins…
As we were starting our hike, we faced a tall slope that seemed to lead nowhere. We saw the peak of Mt Etna hiding behind the hill as though she was peeking at us. We were very excited with our first step on the volcano terrain was unlike what we thought. The soil on the volcano was soft and grainy. This feels more like the sands of a beach but looser as our feet begin to sink into the ground. The first part of the trek was easy, as the path gradient was gentle. Along the way, Marco explained the importance of the flora we saw spreading around the area we were stepping into. Alessio, who was at the back of the group to ensure that none of us was lost during the hike, constantly looked around the ground and sometimes picked up rocks he found on the ground. Alessio explained to the pack of us at the back of the group that this was a volcanic rock that came out of the crater. Anything larger will be capable of causing hurt to humans and properties.
Lunch with a View
As we continued our hike up Mt Etna, we reached a grassland. Walking on this part of the volcano feels like walking on flat ground. At the trail’s end, we came across some boulders that we would have to scale. As we climbed up these boulders, the peak of the snow-covered Mt Etna with fumes of white smoke emitting was in our sight. We were amazed by this incredible view of the gentle lady that we were on. Looking out into the area, we saw a crater-like depression that seemed to stretch forever. As we were walking along the path, the path got narrower and narrower to the point that it was just as wide as two feet wide. One misstep would mean we would fall into the valley below, and there were no barricades would shield us from the potential danger of falling over. However, we had trust in Marco and Alessio that we were well watched over. Marco announced that we would stop for lunch at the trail’s end. We all found a huge boulder to sit on and started munching on the sandwich we had bought earlier. What we saw ahead was the peak of Mt Etna with her endless white fumes and, at times, low clouds passing over her. The view is a one in a million! This is a perfect spot to have lunch while looking at Mt Etna and enjoying the mountain breeze.
The Return Journey
After 15 mins, Macro announced for us to start our hike down to where we started. Instead of going through the same route, we took a different way. We hiked upslope and boulders, putting the view of Mt Etna behind us. As we walked, we came to a part where we needed to descend. Alessio assured us we could run down the slope without worrying that we would tip over the edge. I had a go at it, and it was fun (though I thought it would be more fun if we had some sledge down the slope). The volcanic ashes here are more coarse and looser. We soon come across a lava channel. Gone was the lava that once flowed through this channel. All that remained were rocks that the lava had once smashed through. Another downslope later, Marco brought us to a lava cave. He explained how this cave was formed and how the locals used this cave. We were taken inside to feel the temperature difference. We continued on the path, and suddenly the path felt familiar. This was where we were when we hiked up. I exclaimed to my friends. We are near the end of the hike. Soon after, we can see the vehicles we drove up on.
After returning to our vehicles, Alessio said we would stop by a cafe on Mt Etna for coffee. So we were driven to a cafe which was closed. At this point, we realise that the destination is not this cafe but the crater behind the cafe. The short walk around the crater allowed us to see what a crater looked like. Alessio explained this is just one of the hundreds of craters on Mt Etna, and every year the volcanologists would find one new crater on Mt Etna. After the crater visit, we had some coffee, and soon it was time for us to bid Mt Etna farewell.
Last Look at Catania
Alessio drove us back to Catania. The plan today was that if we got back to Catania at around 3 pm, we might still be able to squeeze in a visit to Ursino Castle, just 15 mins walk from our hotel. We arrived at Catania city at around 4.30 pm. There is little time for us to visit the castle before it closes. We walked to the city centre for our last dinner in Italy. We asked the friendly waitress about the fried rice ball we had heard so much about during dinner. She gave us some recommendations, and one of them is located about 5 mins walk from our hotel. We headed to get some rice balls and picked up gelatos before returning to the hotel to pack our luggage for our journey home tomorrow.
The bus we were supposed to be on to Agrigento was initially scheduled for 7.20 am but was brought forward to 6.30 am. We had an early start and made our way by foot to the bus terminal, located about 20 minutes from our hotel. We cut it very fine when we arrived at the bus departure venue. The bus we booked did not depart from the bus station but along a nearby street. We were looking for the bus we were supposed to be on, and our bus had left the stop by the time we found it. We asked around to see if we could get the bus company to help us contact the bus driver, but alas, there was no booth set up by the bus company, and there was no way we could reach the bus driver. Walking around, we saw the SAIS company booth and purchased the tickets to Agrigento. The next bus will not leave until 1 hour later. Since we had some time to kill, we had breakfast at the cafe opposite the bus station. After this little episode, I realised there is no need to pre-purchase bus tickets to Agrigento as there are multiple departures from Catania. The bus ride to Agrigento took around 3 hrs. The moment we arrived, we verified that our bus to Catania later in the afternoon would leave at the same place where we were being dropped off. One cafe latte later, we bought our bus ticket to Valley of Temples from the SAIS office diagonally opposite the bus terminal.
2,500 of Greek History at Valley of the Temples
There are several buses to get to the Valley of Temples (refer to the bus schedules from Agrigento here). There are two main entrances to the Valley of Temples, we started our tour of the valley from the western Porta Quinta entrance, where bus #1 stops. Using the official app, we did a self-guided tour for this day trip to the Valley of Temples. I find the official app for the Valley of Temples very useful (you can download it here for free, scroll down to “Offical App” on the webpage) as it has a designated route that we can take from either of the entrances together with an audio clip that we can listen to when we arrived at the various landmarks. The Valley of Temples wasn’t crowded when we were there due to the low travel season. It took us about 2 hrs to follow the recommended route provided by the app.
The Entrance: Gate Five, Temple of Dioscuri, Temple of Olympian Zeus
Coming into the Valley of Temples through the Porta Quinta entrance, past the ticketing counters, we saw a vast piece of land with nothing but stone walls. There is a wooden path passing in the middle of these walls. Gate Five is essentially the outer wall of the Valley of Temples. Walking past Gate Five, the first set of ruins came into our sight. Only four pillars of the Temple of Dioscuri remained over the land it once stood. We can only roughly make out the size of the temple based on the ruins scattered around, which suggests this is one of the smaller temples in the Valley of Temples. We walked around the temple, hoping to get some pictures of the temple from different angles.
We continued our walk, following the route suggested by the app, and came to the Temple of Olympian Zeus, which is located up a slope. A picture shows how this temple looked during its hay day. What I like about the app is we were given the option of listening to the narration on the ruins that we saw (unlike the audio guide in Pompeii). From the narration, we sought out a statue fallen on the floor, which was supposed to symbolise the Carthaginians defeated by the Greeks long ago. It is a way the victors humiliate the Carthaginians. We thought the Temple of Olympian Zeus was rather large from the fallen statue. Although reduced to only stones here and there, parts of the temple walls still stand. We headed down the slope to a rectangular depression filled with uniformly carved stones. These stones were laid out orderly, and we learnt from the app that this is the main altar to the Temple of Olympian Zeus. From the size of this altar, I can imagine how grand and massive this temple would be in its prime.
The Mid-block: Golden Gate, Temple of Hercules
Walking away from the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the path led us up a slope and through a bridge. Unlike the Golden Gate in the States, the Golden Gate here does not refer to the bridge we were about to cross. Instead, it refers to the path beneath it. From the app, we came to know that this path was used as an entrance to the temple from the city’s port. Today it is replaced by a road used by cars. A short walk from the Golden Gate, we came to the first of the less destroyed temples – the Temple of Hercules. More columns and pillars are standing compared to the Temples of Dioscuri and Olympian Zeus that we saw nearer the Porta Quinta entrance. Not only did we see an almost complete set of pillars on one side of the Temple of Hercules, we saw some remnants of the inner pillars, the steps that lead into the temple, and the raised ground on which it was being built. The Temple of Hercules provided us with some great photo opportunities.
The Highlights: Temple of Concordia, Temple of Juno
Walking along the path, putting the Temple of Hercules behind us, we came to the highlight and the poster child of the Valley of Temples – the Temple of Concordia. We had a pleasant stroll towards the Temple of Concordia. The openness of the path allowed us to see the city of Agrigento from a distance. Before we knew it, we arrived at the Temple of Concordia. We spotted photos of this temple in airports and train stations promoting Sicily. The Temple of Concordia is the most well-preserved Greek architecture outside of Greece. The building resembles the Parthenon in Athens but on a smaller scale. It has a very distinctive Greek-styled structure. We were all awed by the sight of the Temple of Concordia the moment we saw it from a distance. The temple stood strong after 2,500 years, with its distinctive inner sandstone colour structure surrounded by numerous outer pillars supporting a partial roof resting on a four-step platform. This is history coming to life! As the Temple of Concordia is built near a cliff, the view over the vast land in this part of Sicily is equally stunting. We can see the agricultural fields and the sea over the horizon. Looking out into the massive land beneath the Temple of Concordia gave me a sense of zen. As we were walking towards our next landmark, we spotted the broken bronze statue of the fallen Icarus lying dramatically near the base of the Temple of Concordia. The presence of this statue gave the Temple of Concordia a robust Greek identity.
We continued our path as recommended by the app and came to a flight of stairs, where our last stop for the trip in the Valley of Temples would conclude. The Temple of Juno is perched on the top of the stairs at the highest point in the Valley of the Temples. Unlike the Temple of Concordia, the Temple of Juno has only its outer pillars left and some beams that these pillars hold. The size of the Temple of Juno is roughly the same as the Temple of Concordia. Although the Temple of Juno did not age, it radiated a certain charm of ancientness. As with the Temple of Concordia, the view of the plains below from the Temple of Juno is fantastic. Moreover, we could see the Temple of Concordia nesting from afar.
Returning to Catania
We were pretty mindful of the time. After finishing with the Temple of Juno, we were left with 1 hr before our bus back to Catania departed. We exited the Valley of Temples from the Temple of Juno exit. From here, we were not quite sure which bus runs through. We did a quick check with the staff at the ticketing office and were told that Bus #2 comes here, but it would take around 1 hr to get back to Agrigento city as the bus would make a loop at the beach nearby. Our only option is to grab a cab from Juno Exit to Agrigento if we were to make it for our bus back to Catania. The helpful ticketing staff helped us book a taxi to take us back to Agrigento, which brought us back to the city in good time for our ride back to Catania.
We embarked on the 3 hr bus ride back to Catania. When we arrived, it was time for dinner. We decided to have seafood for dinner tonight, as Catania is by the sea, so the seafood should be fresh. I did a quick Google search and found a highly-rated restaurant nearby the bus station. The food was excellent, and the seafood was indeed fresh. As the night was young, we returned to the hotel for a movie night, packing back with us gelatos and snacks. After that, we had to rest and get our bodies ready for the hike of our lifetime tomorrow, trekking up the tallest active volcano in Europe – Mt Etna.
We left the hotel in Rome at 8.30 am to catch our 10 am flight from Rome to Catania. The night before, we requested the reception at our hotel to help us book a cab, which cost us €70. We would have paid roughly the same amount if we were to take the train to the airport. We thought booking the cab was a great idea, as this saved us the effort of lugging our luggage on the uneven Roman roads we experienced the first day we arrived in Rome. The ride from our hotel in Rome to Fiumicino Airport took around 40 mins. After checking in, we headed for the lounge for breakfast before heading to our flight to Catania.
Our flight to Catania landed on time for the 1 hr ride from Rome to Catania. After collecting our luggage, we proceeded to get bus tickets to Catania. From my research, there is a bus that would bring us directly to our hotel in the centre of Catania. We exited the Catania airport terminal on the right to get the tickets and found three ticket booths. We bought our bus tickets from the booth furthest from the entrance to the Airport terminal with the sign “SAIS: Messina -Palermo-Enna”. The ticketing staff gave us directions to the bus top in front of the terminal building with the symbol “ALiBus”, where we took the airport bus. A bus ticket to Catania ticket costs €4 one way. The bus ride to Catania City centre took around 30 mins, and we were helped by the friendly bus driver who ensured that we alighted at the correct stop. After settling into our hotel rooms, we headed to the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, where we could lunch with the stunning view of the snow-capped Mt Etna.
Exploring Catania’s City Centre
We kept our itinerary light today and explored the nearby Catania City Centre, which is highly walkable. The city’s town centre is located 10 mins walk down the street from our hotel. Along the way, we stopped by the Roman Amphitheater of Catania. The Roman Amphitheater sits on a large sinkhole in the middle of the streets, or it could be the whole city is built on top of the old city like Mexico City. It is a shame that we could only see the Roman Amphitheatre from street level as the entrance was closed when we visited. The Roman Amphitheater of Catania looks similar to the one we saw in Pompeii. We can still see the semi-circular seatings facing a stage. The entrances to the Amphitheater were still visible after standing here for more than 2,000 years. As we could not get into the Amphitheater, we continued our walk to the city centre.
As we walked to Piazza del Duomo, the city centre of Catania, we saw a Christmas market being set up at Piazza Università. Stores were selling locally produced food items like jams, chocolates and candies. There weren’t many stores at the Christmas market at the point of our visit, and maybe the Catanians were still setting up the market. Nevertheless, my friends got excited about the Christmas market and went on a shopping spree for the goods on sale. Despite the market’s small scale, the locally produced food was delicious and affordable.
I brought my friends to the symbol of Catania, a statue of an Elephant with an obelisk sitting in the centre of Piazza del Duomo just a stone’s throw away from Piazza Università. The elephant is made of lava and black basalt, and the Catanians believe this elephant symbolises good luck and would protect them from the Eruptions of Mt Etna. The major landmarks in Catania are located around Piazza del Duomo. Catania’s Duomo – Cattedrale di Sant’Agata is located across from the elephant statue. The Cattedrale di Sant’Agata is the largest cathedral in Catania, and its facade is adorned with sculptures. The cathedral’s interior is simple, and the paintings look as though they have not been restored. Other than a place for worshipping, we found some tombs inside the cathedral. One of the famous people buried here is Bellini, a famous opera composer born in Catania. There is also a glass casket of one of the Popes inside the cathedral.
We went for the dome climb at Chiesa della Badia di Sant’Agata which sits right across from Cattedrale di Sant’Agata on the recommendations from vloggers for a sunset view. The climb to the rooftop costs €5 and takes 170 steps. The stairs are generally easy to scale, except the last few steps on a spiral staircase might be a tad tight for some people. The top of Chiesa della Badia di Sant’Agata is a circular path surrounding the cathedral’s dome. We got a 360° view of Catania city, Mt Etna, and the ports. The view was breathtaking and worth every penny of the €5 we paid. It is a great spot to escape the hustle and bustle of Catania City, not as if the city was busy tonight. If not for today’s overcast sky, we would have seen the sunset from the dome of Chiesa della Badia di Sant’Agata. As the sun retires from a day’s work, the lighting replaced the light from the sun; we thought it was a sign for us to get going. We ended the day with a dinner nearby and returned to our hotel early for our early bus to Agrigento tomorrow.
No trip to Italy would be complete without visiting Vatican City for first-timers. When researching what to see in Vatican City, climbing the dome of St Peter’s Basilica was unanimously recommended by all bloggers/Vloggers who came to this fantastic country. We wanted a guided tour of the Vatican City, as a guide would give us better context (not to mention the skip-the-line). Unfortunately, few companies offer tours incorporating St Peter’s Basilica Dome climb, Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel. We found such a tour package provided by The Roman Guy at a reasonable price and booked a complete tour of the Vatican City with them (access the tour we booked here). Our tour was supposed to start at 8.30 am but was shifted to 7.30 am. We took the Metro from our hotel and alighted at Ottaviano Station. From Ottaviano Metro Station, it is an 8 min walk to the meeting point.
Climbing up to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica Dome
After meeting with our tour guide, Raffa, we were brought to the queue waiting to enter St Peter’s Basilica. As we were walking to join the queue to enter St Peter’s Basilica, Raffa introduced the group’s surroundings, such as where the Pope’s bedroom is and the history of St Peter’s Basilica. I wasn’t paying attention to Raffa’s narrations, my eyes were stuck in awe of the massiveness of the basilica and the numerous statues installed on the rooftop of the cathedral, wandering to myself how on earth did they manage to get those statues up on the rooftop during antiquity times. Raffa brought our attention to the obelisk standing in the middle of St Peter’s Square, which is 4,500 years old. The doors to the basilica were supposed to open at 8 am. As we were waiting in the queue to enter, I noticed the queue was getting longer, and the doors to the basilica weren’t even open yet. The doors finally opened at 8.15 am, and we were led through the side of the basilica to a courtyard and waited there again. Raffa told us that the elevator we were supposed to take to the terrace level of the dome was out of order. The basilica staff was sorting out how do we get to the terrace level. Soon after, we were led inside the basilica through one of the side doors. Raffa commented this was the first time she’s been through the side door, and we indeed got a unique experience. As we walked to the “backup” elevator, Raffa told us there wasn’t a single painting in St Peter’s Basilica. Instead, all the so-called images that we saw were mosaics. A single piece of small Vatican mosaic (roughly the size of a notebook) would cost around €4,000. We took the elevator to the terrace level. There are a total of 551 steps to the top of the dome. Taking the elevator, we skipped climbing up more than 200 steps.
Raffa then brought us up a small flight of stairs into the dome of St Peter’s Basilica. Inside we saw the mosaic artwork under the dome. If not for Raffa’s explanation, I would have thought those were paintings. These artworks are more impressive after we learnt they are mosaics, painstakingly put together ceramic by ceramic under the dome. It was a shame that we were only given 5 mins to walk through this dome level. We used whatever little time we had to admire the work of the builders of St Peter’s Basilica. We were given directions on where to get to the top of the dome (Raffa had hurt her leg, and she could not climb with us). The dome climb started with an easy slope, as we progressed higher into the dome, the stairs became narrower, and at one point (I think it must be near to the slope in part of the dome), the amount of headroom we had was very limited. Finally, after some 200-plus steps, we came to a small spiral staircase wedged into a single marble pillar. This marks the last few steps to the top of the dome.
We were all in wonderment when our sight shifted from the narrow, enclosed stairways to the open space in front of us. The sight in front of us was the endless view of Rome, we could see as far as the horizon stretched. But instead of focusing on the distant views, I narrowed my vision to St Peter’s Square. Numerous content creators have mentioned the view of the square from the top of St Peter’s Basilica dome was amazing. Indeed, true to their words, I could see the 13 statues on top of St Peter’s Basilica, the circular St Peter’s Square, and a little beyond that, a road leading to St Peter’s Basilica. The view of the quiet morning St Peter’s Square, sparsely dotted with visitors, is priceless. With the crowd level, we can almost feel the tranquillity of the otherwise busy and crowded square in the morning. As much as I didn’t want to peel my eyes off the peaceful St Peter’s Square, I noticed I was hogging the spot. I moved around the dome to admire Rome from what felt like the top of Rome. I could see the nearby Castel Sant’Angelo marked by its iconic cylindrical brown tower from the top of the dome. I was trying to see if I could spot the Colosseum from the dome. I started by looking for the Tiber River and looked for the Colosseum. However, I wasn’t able to spot the iconic landmark of Rome. Nonetheless, the views from the top of the dome were amazing. We had an unobstructed 360° view of Vatican City and Rome from the top of the dome. Soon my friend started to remind us of the time we had to head back down to meet Raffa for the next part of our tour – the St Peter’s Basilica.