It’s been a little over a year now since I traveled to Italy with my grandma, and not a day goes by where I don’t think to myself, “I miss Italy.” Truly.
I often tend to romanticize things. Italy, while it’s another country with its own problems, conflicts, and troubled history; still nothing compares to the sheer beauty Italy holds within its architecture, art, food, and rich culture. As a creative with a degree in Graphic Design, art history classes were a must in college; my favorite time period often being the Renaissance with famous artists like Michelangelo, Botticelli, Giovanni Bellini, Raphael, and - of course - da Vinci. Always finding a sort of timeless and alluring effect of the art of the age and how it transformed the craft for the years to follow.
But, quite honestly, my original dream to visit Italy didn’t start in those art and general history classes throughout school. It actually started with a video game.
A Video Game?
Gaming has always been around in my life. Whether it was borrowing a close friend’s GameBoy to play Donkey Kong or Yoshi’s Island in elementary school, having my own DS and playing Kirby Super Star Ultra, or playing the classics on a joystick hooked up to the TV. I didn’t get my first console until around 2015 - 2016, the good ol’ used Xbox 360 that my parents had purchased along with a few games I had expressed interest in.
A couple of these games included the first two in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, and if anyone is familiar with this series, you might see where this is going. Assassin’s Creed II follows a character by the name of Ezio Auditore in - of course - 15th-century Italy; where you roam Florence, Venice, San Gimignano, Forlì, and Monteriggioni and meet historical figures such as Lorenzo de Medici, Caterina Sforza, Niccolo Machiavelli, and even become buddies with da Vinci. Before I played this game, I always had an interest in the Renaissance through those general history classes in school, going into this game, however, I wasn’t quite expecting such a desire to stem from it - to visit Italy.
And the surprising thing about these games is that they tend to be fairly accurate both historically and location-wise. Whether it’s in early America during the Revolutionary War, in London during the Industrial Revolution, sailing the sea during the golden age of piracy, scaling the buildings during the French Revolution, or - of course - rowing a gondola down the Venice canals. All locations and time periods are incredibly immersive, so much so that I dreamt of visiting Italy so I could see all the amazing structures and architecture for myself that I had experienced in the game. Is it a little ridiculous? Maybe. Nothing could compare to actually visiting Italy, but for the time being, I replayed AC II as often as I could just to stand in Ezio’s shoes in awe of the Florence Cathedral or rode on horseback to the quaint city of San Gimignano; never actually thinking I’d see it all in person, but still keeping that hope.
It was honestly a dream come true.
My grandparents had traveled with an agency before called Holiday Vacations. Their first trip was to Alaska and both had a wonderful time, even more so with the agency scheduling everything and taking care of housing, most meals, and so on. So, when my grandmother found out that they were doing a trip to Italy in September of 2022 across the Tuscan countryside, she didn’t hesitate to bring it up. She knew I loved Italy and dreamt of visiting one day, I just couldn’t be more grateful that - as she mentioned the trip - she didn’t turn me down when I asked if I could come along.
Everything was planned a year in advance, and every time I saw my grandmother, it was an exciting exchange of how much time we had left until the trip. Six months, two months, three weeks away. And as I traveled for work that year to trade shows, after each one, I was looking forward to the day I could finally get on another airplane and go somewhere completely out of the country.
Then the day finally came. Driving home on a Thursday evening to stay the night at my grandmother’s, my nerves were firing and vibrating through my chest; both excited and very anxious to be traveling outside the country. Because, of course when you call one place home for 25 years, it’s a little nerve-wracking to cross an entire ocean to temporarily leave it. But, as my grandmother and I woke up that morning and made ourselves a good bacon and egg breakfast, we were off in no time to the first airport and flight in a series to JFK where we’d meet with the rest of our travel group.
And it was quite a shock to me as well, so used to flying in and out of the Philly airport, to see the Harrisburg airport so dead and calm at nine in the morning. Literally, we were the only people there for a while, outside of the employees. If only traveling for work was that nice…
Then finally, after three flights - one being 8 hours long - we landed in Milan with my internal clock completely screwed up and a little dazed after going through security to get my passport stamped. And it finally hit me on the bus to our first hotel - listening to the lovely accent of Bruno our local tour guide - that, holy shit, I was finally in Italy.
This town was the first taste of Italy. And the realization that Italy and Europe really weren't too different from home. There were signs, quite literally, that proved you weren't in the US anymore - all of them in Italian, but not entirely unfamiliar. With a few context clues, you could tell what shop was what, what directional sign was pointing you in, and of course - when to stop or go on the road. All of Italy is a historical goldmine, but Padua didn't seem to have the ruins one would expect to date it centuries old. Like many Italian regions and cities, the protective stone wall around the area still partially stood, the only timestamp among the scaffolding, bus routes, and high-end retail shops that marked it as one within the 21st Century. But, like much of Italy, Padua didn't disappoint at all with its classic colorful rooftops and close proximity to the Garda River. Unfortunately, the name of said town overlooking the Garda evades memories. But the first taste of real gelato and the centuries-old stone buildings narrowing into a cozy path snaking around within limited square footage of space put into perspective the ever-awaiting sights and experiences of Italy.
No amount of adjectives can describe the beauty and views of the floating city. Built on nothing but wooden stilts and stone, it's hard to imagine such a structure has been able to withstand the elements for as long as it has. And as strong as its foundations stand, the city itself holds a personality befitting a queen. The gates welcoming us to an infamous piazza, bell tower reaching to card its fingers through the clouds, San Marco glittering in the afternoon sun, and Palazzo Ducale grand with its gothic façade. Light and pastel coloring bleeding from one building to the next, small stone and steel bridges connecting this to that - another part of the main man-made island; shattered like a pebble to a mirror with romance singing through the cracks, bobbing with the shallow ripples of emerald water as paddles and feet push and steer. Not enough time was spent in this stunning city, only a day to enjoy the food, the goods, the glass, the sights, and the warm glow of night. A toe dipped into the water that surrounds and worms through the floating city; in hopes that in due time the same turquoise waters will lap along the ankles; fully submerging into Bella Venezia.
Anticipation triumphs, it always does, especially when en route to a much-awaited point in the trip, Florence. Of course, as stomachs grumble nearing the middle of the day, only halfway from one location to the other, it only seems reasonable to stop for a surprise lunch. Surprise? Yes, paid for and provided by Holiday Vacations, it was a lunch to remember with a mac-n-cheese only Ferrara is known for, a platter of meats, grilled veggies, and potatoes, and a variety of deserts to satisfy the pallet. And with lunch satisfying a majority of the afternoon, and distracting that you're not quite where you want to be yet, a quick stroll around the block only reminds you of how old the streets are that you walk - how old the surrounding buildings are that crowd but feel comfortable, cozy in their proximity.
Florence, where to even begin. It was a city I had roamed enough through a video game, but to stand along those same stone streets, looking up towards the buildings with cracked evergreen-colored windows allowing the gentle breeze inside; it was a feeling that hit with brute force, it felt like home. It had the hustle and bustle I sometimes seek, the smell of food around almost every corner with grand cathedrals towering over everything else. I cried when I first saw the Florence Cathedral in person, its architecture absolutely stunning in person with its vibrant greens and reds coloring the bell tower almost sparkling in the sunlight. It was a marvel, as was the city itself. Of course, just like any city, it had tight roads, cramped living, and a plethora of questionable sights. But nothing could diminish the incredibly rich food and atmosphere surrounding it. Nothing could compare to seeing the giant David statue when you’ve only seen it shrunken in textbooks. Nothing could compare to seeing the beautiful leather and jewelry displayed by a woman with a personality as equally rich and extravagant as she talked to my tour group about knowing when leather is fake, and how old the Ceasar coin necklace was that she had made herself. And nothing could compare to roaming the streets alone, in a completely foreign country, to venture to a bookstore I had remembered seeing at some point. Purchasing a book with the few Euros I had stuffed in my wallet and a rough “Grazie” to the cashier, I left with a feeling that’s hard to describe. And, with the book in hand, I read in another plaza waiting for my grandmother’s church service to end; the feeling was only overwhelming in how comfortable it felt to be sitting there and how I probably would not hesitate to call such a place home. If the opportunity ever arose.
San Gimignano, you were a very pleasant surprise. Spirits were already down for leaving Florence with clouds hanging heavy in the early morning sky. The threat of rain loomed but was welcomed as the breeze in the air was cooler, more pleasant, and tolerable. On to the next destination, but not wanting to leave the one city dreamed of being home. But again, with the drive being so stretched, it only made sense to stop for lunch again in another town along the way. To see the Tuscan countryside was an awaited experience among everything else. To see the rolling hills and rows of vineyards and olive trees for miles with their delicate pearl green leaves. The hills stretched into the distance as the clouds still shrouded the blue of the sky, enough to keep the cool breeze and sun at bay. San Gimignano sits atop a hill, the climb certainly a cause for feet to whine in the early morning. But, there was such a nagging sense that San Gimignano felt so...familiar. Of course, from AC II. This kept the body moving, wanting to see the town at the top. However, once stepping inside one of the four entrances to the small town, emotions hit like a bus. Remembering those skyscraping towers, numerous, a status symbol to the wealthy in Tuscany. Lunch was another gelato, but delicious and worth it nonetheless. My grandmother and I roamed the winding and narrow streets after, each scent came from shops that sold food made the mouth water and nose lift to the sky. Until we came across a shop with authentic leather goods, my eye was out for a new wallet I had been shopping for in the past few months. Then, of course, I’d come across the perfect wallet with everything I had been looking for. A little pricey, but worth it; especially from such a small but quaint town I will always remember each time I reach for this wallet.
Now, it’s rather unusual to be walking through a city within a city. The Vatican City is a marvel with its grand surrounding pillars circling the church. As someone who’s not incredibly religious, the architecture of the church alone was something to truly appreciate. The silence within the church’s walls was both eerie and serene with even the smallest movements echoing off the grand domed ceiling. The entire venture was wonderful to watch my grandmother experience and look in awe of the altar and, of course, the famous painting, Michelangelo's Creation of Adam.
The Vatican City, however, was just the first of our ventures as we traveled to the Roman Forum and Colosseum the next day. It’s such an odd site, a structure as large as the Colosseum almost in Rome’s center, hidden amongst the rest of the city until you’re right next to it. A grand spectating space for Rome’s people in 80 AD. It was a sight I had anticipated since the beginning of the trip, felt as if I was walking through time once stepping into the immense amphitheater. The Forum was equally as fantastic as we strolled along roads that were thousands of years old, the ruins of buildings towering overhead and scraping the clouds above. The entire Forum frozen in time within a city racing to modernity.
Rome was like a playground of architectural sights, the Trevi Fountain next on the list with a mass of people surrounding the impressive fountain sitting on the site of an ancient Roman water source. Before sitting down and out of the sun with more gelato, I couldn’t dismiss the opportunity to toss a coin into the fountain to ensure my return. The Trevi, the Pantheon - one of Rome’s best-preserved monuments dating back to 126 - 128 AD - I was only sad that my grandmother could not join me on these ventures as she sat resting back at the hotel after strenuous walking the day prior. We were able to, luckily, enjoy one last meal together in Italy surrounded by wonderful music and heavenly-smelling food.
Our bus ride back to the hotel that night was one shrouded in sadness, knowing we’d be leaving the next morning to head back home. But, for a few moments, I was able to sit along the window of the bus, just observing the crowds of people as we drove past. People heading to dinner, enjoying a night out, shopping, laughing, talking; and I forgot then that we were in a completely different country across the Atlantic.
Not a day goes by now when I’m not thinking about that trip and experience. I surround myself at work and at home with souvenirs and photos taken from that trip, living daily through those memories with my grandmother. She always says the same, every time we see each other now we voice our nostalgia and how much we miss Italy. Discussing where we’d stay longer if we had a chance to go back, and what new places to visit. What foods to try that we didn’t get to, and sights to see that we missed.
And to think it all was sparked by a video game. Only for that spark to grow into a desire, a dream, a line on my bucket list that I can happily have crossed out now. Until next time, of course.
About the Creator
Young, living - thriving? Writing every emotion, idea, or dream that intrigues me enough to put into a long string of words for others to absorb - in the hopes that someone relates, understands, and appreciates.