Don't get me wrong, I love Thailand. But, being of Italian heritage and having visited four times already, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to meet my sister in Rome a few weeks ago to hire a car and drive around Tuscany and the Mediterranean Coast. It was a great (and expensive) reprieve from the summer heat of Thailand, and with a set of wheels we were able to see places you just couldn't easily get to on trains or buses.
Leaving Thailand and Returning
First, a few notes on flying and airlines. If you have a visa in Thailand already, don't forget to get a re-entry permit! It's 1,900 baht at immigration (just because they can), although I did see a re-entry permit application desk right at passport control at Suvarnabhumi Airport too. I'm not sure how well it works, but when I was there on a Sunday evening, there was nobody in the queue!
If you don't get this permit, whatever visa you have will be voided as soon as you leave. Friend of mine found that out the hard way.
Airlines-wise, I flew over with Ethiad, and I must say... I was impressed. The food and drinks were actually good (a first for me on a flight-the wine was even in A BOTTLE!), the seats were surprisingly comfy for economy class, and if you had already checked in online, you could go straight to the business class desk at the airport to pass through.
For the trip back, I flew FinnAir... and let me just say, anyone wishing to fly a Western airline over a Middle Eastern or Asian one is basically asking for a prison with well-dressed guards. The seats were terrible on the older plane I ended up on from Helsinki back to Bangkok, and the food/drinks were atrocious.
I couldn't even eat what looked like a prison-issued ration (nor tell what it was), and I wasn't even allowed a glass of wine after "dinner" had been served. Considering that flight cost more than the Ethiad flight, I'd say I was done over.
Hiring/Renting a car in Rome
I met my sister in Rome's Fiumicino Airport (Leonardo da Vinci International), which is a busy and somewhat unorganized airport on a good day (took me an hour and a half just to get through passport control thanks to the inevitable Chinese tour groups present), but the international terminal caught fire three days before I left, so leaving was a complete cluster... well, you get the idea.
Hiring a car isn't that expensive if you do it online, and several European companies offer REALLY cheap rentals if you're willing to take a shuttle from the airport a short way. We did, and got a little manual Fiat for 6 days that only cost about 10 euros/day. That's cheap!
I've driven in Italy before (Milan to Nice in France, and I don't recommend driving in Milan's madness), but I've never driven around the country just to sightsee. Way good decision; there's so much beautiful scenery that you just can't easily see using trains or buses.
Driving around Tuscany
I've been to Florence a few times already, but this time my sister and I decided to take the roads less traveled and just drive around with no plans whatsoever. If a name sounded good or a map showed a lake or park nearby, we went there.
We ended up driving though several provinces adjacent to Florence, often not realizing we weren't officially in Tuscany... but it didn't matter. The countryside driving from Rome towards Florence is stunningly beautiful; as an American, I am in awe that a country as historical as Italy (and all of Europe, for that matter) is able to keep urban sprawl from destroying natural beauty as it often does in the States (and Thailand).
Sure, we visited towns each day and found hotels whenever it started to get dark (thank you, Booking.com, for your relatively cheap room selections), but for the most part our days consisted of beautiful scenery.
A few recommendations: if you're addicted to the internet, you'll definitely want to get an Italian SIM card for your phone. Wi-fi in Italy is nothing like Thailand; it's not easy to find, and even if you DO find it at a bar/restaurant, its speed is typically abysmal.
If you take our route (not bothering with internet for the most part), I'd recommend downloading an offline map to use with your smartphone's GPS (Maps.me on Android worked remarkably well for a free app for us), and buying some Skype or similar credit for the times you really need to call a hotel or hostel you've booked (although finding the Wi-Fi to do that isn't easy).
Also, Italy is a lot like Thailand in that not everywhere takes credit cards, especially US-style "swiping" (chipless) cards. Make sure you have access to some euros!
Lago di Bracciano: a sleepy little triad of towns on a lake not more than an hour or so north out of Rome. Looked like a great weekend getaway for urbanites.
Montefascone: a small, cute hilltop town overlooking another large lake (Lago di Bolsena) with a great old side and beautiful church. Great sunset over the lake.
Civita di Bagnoreggio: talk about picturesque. This old, old, old hilltop city is only accessible by foot; you park and walk about 15 minutes up a quite steep path to reach it. Stunning views of the surrounding countryside. A bit touristy, but well worth the trek.
Montepulciano: a more touristy small city in the neighborhood of Florence. Great eats and wine (as with everywhere in Italy), and also (as always) great views of the surrounding countryside.
Pienza: my personal favorite town we visited. Very chill, a small/compact old city center with cute restaurants, and a spectacular view of surrounding pastures. There's not much happening here; it's just a pretty little Tuscan town.
Volterra: to me, very similar to a small version of Florence, yet atop a small mountain (in my eyes, anyway). Great views, old Roman ruins, and plenty of little side streets to explore.
Lucca: another small version of Florence, but with more of a college town feel. Several great restaurants and pubs we found, and it's only an hour's drive from the Mediterranean coast.
Cinque Terra: actually a region of five smaller towns, this is a VERY touristy area thanks to the train that connects them. That said, it is very reminiscent of the Italian Rivera region you see between Monaco and Genoa, thus, very beautiful. More impressive than the towns, though, was the drive between them all. Mountain driving, hairpin turns, steep grades... scary, but well worth it for the spectacular views.
Gaeta: actually about 7 hours south of Cinque Terre (between Rome and Naples), we visited here because we have extended family in the area. Gaeta itself is a bit touristy, but is a pretty old city overlooking the Mediterranean with plenty of restaurants and shops to peruse.
Castel Gandolfo: another little hilltop town overlooking a lake (Lago di Albano), this is a great getaway from Rome and is only about a 15 minute drive from Rome's smaller Ciampino Airport (RyanAir and discount carriers run out of Ciampino).
A Great Experience
Yes, within the span of just over a week, we covered a lot of territory. We're the kinds of travelers who loathe planning and want to be on no sort of time schedule. If you're also like that, definitely get some wheels and just explore Italy... there's much to be found! I miss the wine, coffee, and cheese already.
I think my next trip, once my finances recover from this one (read: never), will be to explore Switzerland and its borders with Germany and Austria... singing The Sound of Music all the way. I love Europe!
I hope you enjoyed my blog. If you would like to get in touch or perhaps e-mail me with a question, I would love to hear from you - All the best, Sam Thompson.