As I predicted in my Top 10 Countries I’ll Return to Post-COVID-19 blog, Italy was not only one of the top ten countries I traveled to but the very first I returned to as travel restrictions abated in this post-COVID-19 era. Dan and I originally had a pre-Christmas trip planned in December. However, due to some unfortunate circumstances, he contracted COVID-19, and we had to reschedule for the time over our second anniversary.
I kept notes throughout our trip on my phone to remember what we did each day. I’ll summarize each below along with photos from our trip.
Travel Day: February 28 + March 1
We started our trip on the evening of February 28th with a red-eye flight out of Honolulu. Over the next 24+ hours, we transited between Hawaii, Seattle, Amsterdam, and Venice. There were two red-eye flights during our travel along with 17+ hours of airtime and 8+ hours of layovers. We landed in Venice at 1 PM on March 2 and that’s where our journey to Italy began!
Italy Day 1: March 2
Though we arrived in the city of Venice via train around 1 PM, we weren’t able to get into our tiny bed and breakfast until 2 PM. We killed time by eating pizza at Il Refolo. If it’s possible to be disappointed by Italian pizza, we were disappointed by the fact that it wasn’t Neapolitan style (our favorite).
After we freshened up at the bed and breakfast, we walked the streets of Venice, remarking how many years it would take you to mentally map the city. No matter where we went, we had to use Google Maps, which wasn’t even as useful as it could be.
It was Ash Wednesday when we arrived, which meant the streets were littered with confetti from Mardi Gras the day before. Venice isn’t the cleanest city (which I remembered from a brief previous stay); however, I found it much more interesting this time around. Coming from Hawaii, I wondered what it would be like to live in a city on the water with absolutely zero green space. We marveled at the fact that there was stone everywhere you looked. We saw a couple of trees but that was it.
We were also curious about the sheer number of dogs we saw. People walked their dogs up and down the narrow streets, and some dogs even walked themselves. Yet, unlike most other countries and cities I’ve been to, these dogs were clearly cared for by someone. They were well-fed and bathed. They all had collars. None looked lost or scared. And absolutely none had the air of a “street dog.” It was almost as if owners just let them out to wander the streets — knowing that they’d come home when they were ready.
We saw the typical spots to see in Venice including the Bridge of Sighs and St. Mark’s Basilica. The Basilica was just closing when we arrived for Mass, but we just managed to sneak in for prayer. We originally intended to go back for Mass but jetlag was wearing on us. Between the time that we were waiting for Mass to start, we found a cute wine shop called Dolcemaro and started drinking a delightful sweet red. Before long, we were heading down the road for an early dinner of bolognese and mushroom and zucchini tortellini at Ristorante Ca’ Dolfin. With a cup of the most delicious hot chocolate on the way home, we were asleep right around 8 PM, attempting to swap our days and nights.
Italy Day 2: March 3
When you go to bed at 8…you wake up at 4. We both woke up at 4 AM unable to get back to sleep even though we didn’t need to get up until 6 AM or so for our train. I ended up doing some work during that time and then heading out to grab a croissant and espresso on the way. We then walked to the train station for our train departing at 7:18 AM to arrive in Verona around 8:30 AM.
We were a bit delayed heading into the city of Verona because we had to wait for the luggage storage to open up at the train station. After a 25-minute walk into the city, we arrived at Casa de Giulietta (Juliet’s House), which I had long wanted to visit thanks to the movie Letters to Juliet. Walking through the pretty (and clean!) streets of Verona, we grabbed another espresso and hot chocolate (because why not?), visited two nearby churches, and then walked along the river.
Dan accidentally navigated us to the wrong train station for our 11 AM pickup time for the car, so we hopped in a taxi and ended up waiting for a shuttle to the rental car place, which was most definitely (and conveniently) not advertised. It now makes sense why that rental car was so much cheaper than the others located at the train station! Finally, at noon, we were in a (very nice) Italian car heading up to Santuario Madonna della Corona, a church Dan had visited on a previous trip to Italy and wanted to take me back to.
The drive through the Italian countryside outside of Verona was smooth (much to Dan’s relief), and we ate pizza in the tiny town near the church once we arrived. We then walked down to the church to visit and take pictures. While we originally wanted to attend Mass at the church, we were more than an hour away from the start time. Still exhausted from jet lag, we decided to return to Verona early and catch an earlier train to Garda at 5 PM.
We arrived in Sirmione around 5:45 and all was well until Dan went to pay for the bed and breakfast reservation. Opening his wallet, he realized that he left his credit card in the door of the car when he paid a toll earlier. Our hosts could not have been more hospitable about it and offered to fetch it for him the next day because they had a car which was more convenient than taking the train back and forth. They insisted he stay to enjoy the two days we had in Lake Garda, which was so kind of them!
That night, Dan all but dragged me out of bed at 7 PM to go to dinner. (The right move in the long-term but a very difficult move in the short-term.) We went to a local restaurant that featured a 5-course tasting menu. Dan loves tasting menus, but this one left something to be desired. The wine was excellent, but the tuna tartare turned me off of seafood for the rest of the trip.
Italy Day 3: March 4
The next morning we woke up early and walked into Sirmione to get breakfast in town. We had initially really looked forward to Lake Garda as an escape, but it seemed sleepy and out of season. It seemed like it would have been really nice had we been there in June. Additionally, the air quality was poor, which made the views over the lake smoggy.
Nonetheless, we made the most of it and went to check out the Roman ruins after an avocado toast breakfast. We also grabbed our first gelato of the trip on the way back. That night, we went out to dinner in town. Most of the highly-rated restaurants were closed for the winter season but we finally settled on a bruschetta spot before heading back for an early bedtime.
Italy Day 4: March 5
On our fourth day in Italy, we woke up early and returned to our cute little breakfast spot for more avocado toast, espresso, and hot chocolate. Our destination for the day was the Cinque Terre. To get there, we had to catch an 11 AM bus to the train station and take three different trains to Manarola.
Dan was kind enough to swap bags with me the entire day…and we conveniently never swapped back. Thanks, Dan!
We arrived just in time to watch the sunset from our hotel’s patio. At this point, it was dark and cold, so Dan went to grab some takeout ravioli from a spot we saw in town on our walk up to our hotel. We also drank homemade white wine that our hosts made before turning in.
Italy Day 5: March 6
We woke up early in the Cinque Terre and started off with some work and travel planning for the rest of the trip. By 8 AM, we were ready to hike to the other towns in the Cinque Terre. The Cinque Terre consists of five main towns (or lands, if directly translated). These towns are Manarola (where we stayed), Corniglia, Riomaggiore, Monterosso, and Vernazza.
We started off by hiking from Manarola to Volastra, not a main town but a neighboring town along the route to Corniglia, which took about 50 minutes. At that point, we desperately needed breakfast, so we stopped at the only open store in the entire town, which was a small deli for breakfast items. We purchased a fresh loaf of bread, two oranges, and a small box of olives. Dan raved about the olives for the rest of the trip.
After breakfast, we hiked from Volastra to Corniglia which took another 50 minutes. At this stop, we got espresso and hot chocolate before training to Riomaggiore for a pizza, gnocchi, and Prosecco lunch. Lunch stretched into the late afternoon, and we went back to Manarola for a quick pitstop before dinner.
Our dinner spot was Nessun Dorma which had the iconic views the Cinque Terre is known for. We had to download an app to get in line at the right time, and it was packed come dinner time. I highly recommend it — just make sure you’re prepared as 5 PM roles around!
Italy Day 6: March 7
On this day, we planned to hit the two remaining towns in the Cinque Terre: Monterosso and Vernazza. We started off with breakfast around 9:30 and then trained to Monterosso to walk around for a couple of hours. While Monterosso was a bit more spread out and build up than the rest of the towns we visited, it still seemed to be all mom and pop businesses. And it was definitely off-season. It seemed like everyone was out fixing shutters or doing some type of construction project.
After a little while, we decided to train over to Vernazza to eat lunch. Because it was only 1 stop, we neglected to get train tickets (a very stupid move), and we ended up getting fined 100 euros. It was the only time up to that point we didn’t have a ticket for any train, and it was the only time going forward. Dan took it in stride, but I was upset. Up to this point, I had been to 70 countries and never gotten a fine because I always buy tickets and follow the rules. I felt stupid and embarrassed that we hadn’t just paid the collective 4 euros to avoid the fine.
I spent much of the rest of the afternoon sulking (I hope the Italian conductor who fined us knew that he ruined my day!). We ate lunch in Vernazza as we had planned before we returned to Manarola. Dan went on the hunt for gifts and eventually hiked over to Riomaggiore, which he DOES NOT recommend.
We stayed in Manarola for dinner and packed up to head to Sicily the next day!
Italy Day 7: March 8
To get out of the Cinque Terre, we had to catch a series of trains to get to Genoa where we’d catch a flight to Palermo. However, a strike was planned for that day, and we worried this would prevent us from making our flight. We woke up at 6 AM to catch our 7:17 train. Fortunately, nothing seemed to be canceled or delayed due to the strikes. A couple of trains and a bus later, we were at the Genoa Airport flying Ryan Air to Palermo.
We rented a car in Palermo, which was a mistake. In hindsight, I would never rent a car in Sicily ever again. It wasn’t an incident-free experience, but I’m impressed that we managed to leave the country without a major catastrophe occurring. On our way to our bed and breakfast in central Palermo, Dan got a quick (and terrifying) introduction to the city with the Sicilian traffic.
We hadn’t had a true meal all day, so we grabbed a late lunch around 4 PM and then walked around the city center. We had a late pizza dinner around 8 PM and then crashed!
Italy Day 8: March 9
Our next morning started with breakfast provided by our B&B. This is where we met Mary — born and raised in Palermo but with ancestry from Ghana. She was a delightful host for our next few mornings of breakfast at La Terrazza sul Centro. We enjoyed delicious pistachio cake and views of the cathedral nearby.
During breakfast, Dan found a free walking tour that started at 10:30, and we decided to join. Initially, we had difficulty locating the group, but eventually, we found one of the only English-speaking tours. The tour lasted around 2 hours and covered much of the city center including history and culture that’s specific to Palermo (anti-Mafia, nightlife, food, etc.).
We also met Fraser and Sarah, a couple from Scotland, during the tour who we hung out with for the next couple of nights. After the tour, we returned to a marble church that our tour guide acknowledged but didn’t have time to take us into. We also went back to a market that sold pistachio butter to purchase some for ourselves and our friends back in Hawaii.
Before dinner, Dan went to get a haircut and had quite the adventure because no one in the barbershop spoke English. We went to a local place for dinner and then met Fraser and Sarah for drinks. During this time, we saw a bit of Sicilian nightlife, which our local guide had earlier emphasized consisted of drinking in the streets.
Italy Day 9: March 10
On March 10, Dan and I woke up celebrating our second anniversary together! Dan gifted me some beautiful earrings that we had seen while window shopping a couple of days earlier. We went up to breakfast on the terrace eagerly anticipating our day at a winery outside of Palermo.
To re-enter the city with a car, we were told you have to obtain a ZTL pass. From our understanding (although, we’re still a bit confused), this is a 5 euro parking pass that limits the number of cars that can park in the city center. It’s free on the days you enter the city and leave the city. Any other day, however, you have to pay to re-enter and park. Dan went to go grab the ZTL from a local tobacco shop, and on the way, he received a message from the winery that 3 staff members had COVID, which meant they had to cancel the reservation.
Right away, I set off trying to find an alternative plan for the day. I still wanted to leave Palermo because we had the car. Dan probably could’ve been convinced to stay. He didn’t really want to drive in Sicily given his initial experience, and the ZTL pass was proving difficult to find. Still, I found Marsala, which was known for its fortified wine and wineries, and it was only (supposedly) 1.5 hours away.
We started our venture out of the city. Just as Dan started getting the hang of the driving (and telling me how glad he was that he was the one driving instead of me), he blew past another parked car and knocked out the mirror on ours. We continued up a few blocks before he parked and ran back to see if he could find the owner of the car to sort out any damages. Alas, the parked car seemed to be gone by the time he went ran back and all he found was the broken mirror.
A bit shaken, we continued on to Marsala where we all but begged a winery to allow us to do a tasting. The woman initially encouraged us to make an appointment the next day, but we assured her that we would only be there that day, and it had to be now. She was kind to show us around and allow us to taste three different wines. She also gave us a local recommendation for lunch.
After the wine tasting and lunch, we walked to an auto repair shop. Because of the damage to the car, I thought we may be able to just get a replacement mirror and pop it back into place. The first shop owner didn’t speak any English and didn’t have a replacement in stock. We compensated for our language barrier by just showing him the picture of the mirror and the vehicle’s make and model. He suggested we try a different repair shop.
We walked to the second repair shop (also no English) and tried the same approach. Success! They had the mirror replacement in stock and sold it to us for only 20 euros. We walked back to the car hoping we could just pop in the mirror. Sure enough — it was as good as new.
We returned to Palermo where Dan parked a kilometer outside the city because he was terrified he was going to hit something again. We grabbed a tasty dinner for our anniversary and met back up with Fraser and Sarah for a late night of drinking white wine in the city center.
Italy Day 10: March 11
It was our final day in Sicily, so we woke up at 7:30 AM and packed before breakfast. I savored every last bite of my pistachio cake and espresso with Mary before we walked to the car, grabbing a postcard for my collection on the way. Our destination for the day was Pozzallo where we could take a ferry to Malta.
Looking back, I would never do this again. We planned this trip before they dropped the COVID-19 testing regulations in the EU. Believe it or not, there are no flights between Palermo and Valletta despite how close they are. We could have flown from Genoa to Valletta, but we would’ve had to go back to mainland Italy to get to Sicily. We also didn’t want to deal with testing to get in and out of Italy (now that’s not an issue). We thought about how to do this for hours, and we finally arrived at the conclusion that renting a car and driving across Sicily to take the ferry made the most sense.
Now I know that taking the ferry is a right pain in the butt. I don’t think that’s always the case. I think if you live in Pozzallo, then it’s easy. Additionally, if the Catania ferry had been running, then it would have been easier also, but all the logistics seemed to be against us. And with that, Dan drove 4 hours from Palermo to Comiso where there was a little regional airport to return the car. This was a terrible drive. It was incredibly stressful, and we almost got into additional accidents due to the other drivers on the road. (Seriously, Dan was actually driving safely!)
When we arrived at the rental car place, the employee asked us how everything went. We tried to be nonchalant and didn’t mention the mirror catastrophe. In my opinion, it looked as good as new. The car already had 10+ pieces of damage (scratches or scraps) when we picked it up. You couldn’t tell where Dan hit because of existing damage on the mirror. The guy seemed a little incredulous when we said everything was fine, but there was no evidence otherwise. Our efforts had succeeded.
We grabbed a snack at the airport because we hadn’t eaten since that morning. We tried to find a taxi but didn’t see one pull up for a good 20-30 minutes. The website online had said both local buses and taxis would be available. Where were they now?
Dan asked someone who worked there how to get a taxi to the train station, and as she was calling a taxi service, another employee named Jean Luca just offered to drive us. A bit wary of getting in the car with a stranger but clearly not scared enough not to do it, we followed Jean Luca (pictured in the yellow vest below) to his car. (This is NOT a regular practice of mine during travel — and especially not solo travel.) During the drive, he called his mom to let her know that he was driving two Americans to the bus station. Dan later remarked that if he ever picked up hitchhikers, he was going to make the first call to his mom, so they knew he wasn’t a serial killer.
After his mom, Jean Luca called another relative who spoke English. He didn’t understand why we were trying to go to the train station. Clearly, it’s not normal for people to go from Comiso to Pozzallo for the ferry to Malta. However, she translated for us, and after showing him the train ticket, he finally understood. He dropped us off at the station, which I expected to be much bigger than it was. There was nothing but a single platform and nowhere to wait. We were still two hours early for the train.
We decided to walk about 10 minutes to a coffee shop to kill time. When the train finally arrived around 3:50, it was a single train car. Dan and I looked at each other and laughed. Neither of us realized just how remote this route was.
After about an hour and a half, we arrived in Pozzallo. We were both pretty hungry — having eaten only coffee and pastries since that morning. We had about a 40-minute walk to the ferry terminal. Our ferry was leaving at 7:30. We figured we could grab a bite to eat and then walk or grab a cab to the terminal. We had seen cab drivers as we exited the small train station.
Quickly, our time began to dwindle. We got caught up in conversation with the restaurant owner who had lived in the United States. The pizza oven took too long to head up. We knew we needed to board the ferry 30 minutes prior to departure. We were getting tight on time, and we knew we made the mistake of eating too far from the ferry. But it was too late now…all we could do was find a cab quickly.
Except there were no cabs to be seen. If we hadn’t seen cab drivers when we exited the train station, I wouldn’t have believed they existed in this tiny town in Italy. I searched — believe me, I searched — as we ran 30 minutes to the port with Dan carrying both heavy backpacks.
With about 5 minutes to spare, we arrived at the ferry terminal, huffing and puffing. We had made it! The woman at the door checked our passports and vaccine cards…then she asked if we had downloaded the VeriFly app. My heart sank. Apparently, this was an American-specific requirement to enter Malta. I did have the VeriFly app downloaded because of my trip to Belize, but I hadn’t done anything with it. My internet was also poor, my phone was almost dead, and the app was back up in the Cloud. I hope she would just see it on my phone and give me the okay, but no, Malta is the strictest country I’ve encountered in terms of COVID regulations. They checked and double-checked to make sure we followed these rules.
For the next 20 minutes, Dan and I stood sweating as he downloaded the app on his phone (which was thankfully working normally). He quickly bypassed email verification and started inputting his information. He even found a loophole to add me to his account, so I didn’t need my phone at all. We completed three steps of information for each of us and then approached passport control, praying we could make it onto the ferry. We were stopped again. They noted that our vaccine cards were “pending” they hadn’t been accepted yet because they required manual review.
We urged the process along, saying that they would be authorized soon, but they were just pending because of Malta’s review process. It didn’t have anything to do with us. A very long walkie-talkie discussion later, we were finally okay to board!
The ferry ride was smooth. During the ride, Dan got confirmation that our vaccine cards were accepted, and they actually checked them in detail on arrival. Again, this is a level of detail I have not seen in any other immigration process since the pandemic began. Impressive but stressful! I’m glad we got the confirmation, or I’m sure we would have major issues with the Maltese government.
The rest of the night consists of a somewhat sketchy (but cheap!) cab ride, and McDonald’s because Dan was “starving” (even after that pizza dinner that caused us to run so late).
Malta Day 1: March 12
We woke up the next morning thrilled to have made it to Malta, my 71st country. There were genuinely times that I thought we were going to be denied boarding and wouldn’t make it on the boat. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case.
On March 12, we ate breakfast at the Corner Crave Cafe Bistro, which offered us avocado toast and free coffee. I don’t remember seeing much avocado toast in Europe when I studied abroad, but I love feeling like I’m having a little taste of home in the mornings when my other meals are so much different.
Dan and I spent the morning walking around Sliema where we were staying. Sliema offers a ton of 4 and 5-star hotels at inexpensive rates. We stayed at the 1926 Hotel & Spa for around 60 euros per night! In the afternoon, we got a couples massage and followed it up with the most delicious strawberry gelato at Busy Bee.
The rest of the afternoon was relaxed. We spent time at the hotel’s pool, sauna, and steam room and ate gyros for dinner.
Malta Day 2: March 13
Because of our crazy travel day and the massage, we had planned to stay in Sliema the day before. However, we knew we needed to hit the capital of Malta, Valletta. Unfortunately, it was pouring rain for the first time our entire trip, which meant the ferry between the two cities was canceled. We ate breakfast at Busy Bee and took a packed local bus over to Valetta.
We attended Mass at St. John’s in Maltese, which was quite an experience, and then grabbed hot chocolate and cake after mass. I took pictures in the absolute pouring rain. Dan was a great sport as my photographer but thought I was insane for taking off my jacket (probably true). We road back to Sliema in the afternoon where Dan got a second massage because he had been carrying my backpack since Lake Garda. Our evening ended with dinner at a Neapolitan-style pizza place, which served as a nice comparison for the following night, and a movie (Marley & Me). A great way to begin winding down our trip.
Malta Day 3: March 14
This was our final day in Europe, and I had been dreading this day for the entire trip. We had to wake up and almost immediately go get COVID-19 tests. If we didn’t test negative, we were going to be stuck in Malta for 14 days. As Dan said, there were worse places to get stuck than in Malta because of how nice and cheap the accommodations were. Still, I didn’t want to get stuck anywhere.
To make matters worse, I also woke up with a migraine. I powered through the absolutely worst COVID-19 test of my life. I generally think people overhype them and they aren’t bad, but this one was awful. I’m not sure if it’s how the Maltese do their tests, or if it’s just the woman who tested me, but my eyes watered and my nose ran for a good 10 minutes afterward!
Fortunately, our tests came back negative within the hour, so we knew we’d be free to go home! With my migraine, I headed back to the hotel, and Dan went to get me a smoothie. We had a couple more hours in the hotel room, so I hung out there waiting for the medicine to kick in while Dan went back to see Valletta in the sunshine. He returned in the afternoon for us to go grab a final bite to eat at the Corner Crave Cafe Bistro and one last strawberry gelato.
We took a cab to the airport and landed in Naples around 7 PM. Our experience in Naples was generally terrible except for eating my favorite pizza in the world at La Pizzeria da Michele. If I never had to go back to Naples for that pizza, I wouldn’t.
Travel Day 2: March 15
We left Naples dark and early (thank goodness), waking up at 3:30 to go to the airport. Our flight path back to Hawaii was Naples to Paris to Seattle to Honolulu. We arrived back in Honolulu at 6:50 PM on March 15, which was the longest day ever! Overall, our flights on the way back timed up better than those on the way there.
That concludes our trip to mainland Italy, Sicily, and Malta for our second anniversary! On our first anniversary, we visited the North Shore of Oahu and Maui, starting the tradition of what I call the “Anniversary Islands.” I hope to continue this tradition by visiting a different island (or group of islands) for every anniversary we celebrate together. When our trip to mainland Italy did work out in December 2021, I proposed we add both Sicily and Malta to the itinerary, so we could reschedule the trip while keeping the theme. I can’t wait to see where next year’s anniversary takes us!