My girlfriend and I took 2 weeks off to go on a road trip by car all through northern and central Italy, back to Vienna through Austria. 13 stops and 3050 km later - here’s the verdict.
Here is our itinerary:
- Day 1: Vienna to Ljubljana
- Day 2: Ljubljana to Trieste to Padua (we stayed in Padua for convenience)
- Day 3: Padua to Venice back to Padua
- Day 4: Padua to Bologna to Florence
- Day 5: Florence
- Day 6: Florence to Rome
- Day 7: Rome
- Day 8: Rome
- Day 9: Rome to Puntone, Grosseto (Tuscany)
- Day 10: Puntone
- Day 11: Puntone to Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre to Saló, Brescia
- Day 12: Saló, Brescia to Trentino to Bolzano to Innsbruck
- Day 13: Innsbruck to Vienna
I’ve wanted to go on a road trip like this for more than 5 years now, but the time was never right. At the beginning of this year, I got myself a used car (a 2007 Mazda MX5-NC convertible) with this in mind. It was the most and least perfect car for this trip at the same time. It was a truly excellent driving experience on the mountainous roads, a mediocre one on the endless straight highways with the noisy interior, and a bad one regarding storage capacity (you can only fit 2 backpacks in an MX5).
I’ve been to Rome once in 2020, and I’ve been to Italy a couple of times as a kid. My parent’s generation (birth years 1960-1970, “Boomers”) always had this romanticized vision of Italy. More projected exoticism than actual substance, I’d say. This trip gave me a much better understanding of the less visited parts of the country. The parts that aren’t Venice, Rome or Florence.
My experience was quite sobering. Once you leave the most northern parts of the country, you can see the country getting poorer by the kilometer. Roads in disrepair, beat up cars, seemingly empty towns and villages with the façades crumbling. Not surprising if you look at it from a demographic, political and economic perspective.
Italy is one of the oldest countries by median age (5th oldest in the world as of 2018) and has the second lowest fertility rate in the EU (second only to Spain). The country has an extremely high turnover of governments, with 68 governments in 76 years. In addition, Italy hasn’t had any real economic growth since the financial crash of 2008, never having surpassed their peak GDP in 2007. These massive problems make the issues countries in central and northern Europe have to deal with pale in comparison. The Italians can’t buy themselves out of these problems. They don’t have the institutions, the money, and the leeway like Germany and France do.
Having been to Thailand (a “developing” economy) in November/December of last year, I couldn’t help myself comparing the two. Italy seemed to fit the same category. All the working Infrastructure (motorways, gasoline stations, power, water, public transport), if not in disrepair, seemed to have been put in place around 20 years ago, with few extensions or renewals to speak of.
Just like anywhere in Europe right now, inflation is high, and so were gasoline, hotel and restaurant prices. The same hotel in Rome (city center, close to the Pantheon), which cost me 85 EUR / night in August of 2020, was offered at 240 EUR now.
Overall, Italy is an incredibly beautiful country, boasting in natural riches and culture. However, for lack of a functioning government and economy, the overlaying reality was quite unpleasant.
We tried our best to do some research before booking hotels or going out to restaurants. The service was either bad or mediocre at best. The quality of the food is nothing that I couldn’t have in Vienna at the same price. We regularly paid upwards of 60 EUR for a two-person meal in a non-fancy place. On several occasions, the power in our Hotel rooms (Florence and Rome) went out, with the staff taking some time to fix it. A 120-200 EUR / night hotel room, that is.
Some of my personal highlights were Ljubljana (Slovenia’s capital) and Saló (a small town on Lake Garda). Both of which I found to be incredibly beautiful and very worth visiting. Rome was great as always, although 2-3 days are sufficient. I quite liked Venice, there is an astonishing amount of beautiful architecture in such a small place. Navigating through the flow of people for hours on end can be exhausting, however.
I disliked Florence and Tuscany, I’d rather skipped that. Florence seems like a run-down, hyper-touristy Disneyland with terrible public infrastructure. I felt none of the romantic vibes I heard and read about. Tuscany was okay, but the prices for food and accommodation were unreasonably high. Also, the natural beaches have maximum capacity and must be booked well in advance. Something I don’t want to deal with when I’m on a beach holiday. We tried to do a stopover in Cinque Terre, but the parking situation was impossible, so we had to keep going.
Trieste, Padua, Trentino and Bolzano I found quite insignificant and therefore unappealing. Not worth stopping by. As an Austrian, I was keen on seeing some of Italy’s “Austrian” parts, namely South Tyrol. I prefer the northern half. Innsbruck was definitely worth visiting. It’s pretty but gets boring relatively fast I’d assume.
On the way home from Innsbruck, we took the road through the lush greenery of the Tyrolean and Salzburgean countryside. Just the two of us and winding roads from village to village. Mesmerizing.
Regarding Italy, you could feel, people, especially the young are struggling. Struggling to find a job, a house, to build a life. Life’s tough in Italy. The EU should do more to improve sustainable economic and political development in the country. But as the third largest contributor to the EU Budget, Italy is considered a “rich country”. Seems like they need the money to help their own population instead.
To summarize, my experience on this trip was fantastic. I learned a lot about our bigger neighbour and fellow EU country, and I’m grateful for that. But for now, I don’t want to visit anytime soon, there are other, equally interesting places, with much better value for money.
Italy is definitely not what it used to be, especially in relation to its’ European peers. The country needs a lot of reform and progress to get back on track. Until then, I hope for the best.