In which we eat trapizzini, take photos of Cinquecentos, enjoy the quaint charm of Orvieto, gawk at a skull with ears in Naples, and eat more trapizzini.
Let's start with my favorite obsession that is backup. I stopped working on Little Backup Box and handed over the project to a new maintainer a while ago (long story, don't ask). Since then, I've been using a ThinkPad X1 Carbon 5th and Otto to back up photos and RAW files when traveling. And then I discovered iSH that I used to transform my iPad mini into a capable and flexible backup device. So for our Rome adventure, I packed an iPad, an Anker 8-in-1 USB-C hub, and an Orico NVMe SSD enclosure housing a 200GB M.2 2280 NVMe SSD.
Ideally, I'd have preferred to have a storage card for each day of the trip. But buying ten cards and then keeping tabs on them would have been expensive and impractical. So instead, I did the math, and decided that five 32GB cards would do just fine. And indeed it did. Each card was named sequentially, from CARD1 to CARD5, and I used the backup scripts to back up each card to the dedicated directory on the SSD disk.
Despite multiple tests at home, I worried a bit about how the setup would work in the field. Because it's an established scientific fact that bugs tend to show up when you don't have the time and opportunity to fix them. To my delight, it performed admirably. Better still, our hotel in Rome had a reliable and fast Internet connection, so I was able to use the remote backup script (with a minor tweak) to back up photos and RAW files to my VPS instance.
Mirrorless, schmirrorless! I have been wielding a Nikon D800 that I bought on eBay in 2022 paired with a Nikkor AF-S 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR lens during the trip, and I have zero regrets. Of course, for an 11-year-old machine, Nikon D800 does have its fair share of shortcomings. It's undeniably heavy and bulky by today's standards (I lovingly call my Nikon D800 "Steam Engine"). Mirror clapping ruled out using the camera in certain situations. The strong Italian sun made it difficult to preview photos, and the somewhat long processing delay made immediate accurate previews impossible. Actually, the display proved to be useless for accurately assessing the taken photos. Still, the machine's ergonomics, a capable 36MP sensor, a solid build, and physical buttons by far outweighed all the drawbacks.
Then there are the batteries. Instead of using the standard charger that comes with Nikon D800, it's possible to buy an EN-EL15c-compatible battery with a built-in USB-C charging port. I bought two PATONA Platinum EN-EL15c USB, and it's impossible to overestimate how practical and clever these batteries are.
I bought the lens on eBay specifically because it strikes a balance between the focal length range and size. On paper this makes it a perfect travel zoom. In reality, the lens is a mixed bag. Focusing is fast and quiet, the image quality is solid, but the heavy distortion and chromatic aberration are hard to ignore. Both can be fixed relatively easy in post-processing, but being lazy, I try to avoid work whenever possible. Also, I would have preferred something with a longer reach. Perhaps, Sigma 24-105mm F4 DG OS HSM Art would have been a better option, but it's bigger and heavier than the Nikkor, which makes it less ideal for travel.
I was also surprised to discover how lazy all the creature comforts of a modern mirrorless camera made me as a photographer. With a mirrorless camera, you don't have to make any decisions before you press the shutter release button: you simply look into the EVF and adjust the settings until you're happy with the result. Over- and underexposure indicators, live histogram, focus peeking: you have all the conveniences imaginable right in the EVF. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, but the fact that you can't do anything wrong makes photography a tiny bit less exciting. A DSLR forces you to learn how to read the scene and choose the right camera settings to achieve the desired result. Only then you can press the shutter release button and see whether your educated guess was correct. The learning process and the joy of nailing the settings from the first try — I didn't realize that I was missing those until I picked up the Nikon D800.
Coincidentally, Amateur Photographer has published an article entitled Here’s why the DSLR will always be in demand… that echoed many of my observations of using Nikon D800:
Where is the skill in mastering your hobby, where is the learning how to take better photographs, how to get your shots sharp, when your camera does all this for you? [...] When you have to make sure your lens is at the right setting, when you have to make sure your focus is perfectly spot on, when you have to try multiple times to get the shot right, maybe this is the true joy of photography, rather than letting the camera do it all.
But I digress.
Right, on to the trip itself. Rome was our destination and a launchpad for day trips to other cities. I'm not a travel writer, so I'll just stick to random notes.
- Yes, we visited the Colosseum, the Trevi fountain, the Pantheon, and the Vatican. Yes, it was hell (although my wife doesn't share that particular sentiment).
- There are homeless people in the Vatican. Go figure.
- While wandering around the Monti neighborhood, we stumbled upon a yellow Fiat 500 in perfect condition. Although I'm indifferent to cars in general (I don't even have a driver's license), I have a soft spot for the cinquecento. There is something about it that makes me want to hug it, especially if it's a yellow one.
- Cucina romana is heavy on the pecorino cheese, which, I discovered, wasn't really to my tasting. Honestly, we ate better in Verona, Bologna, and Parma.
- When doing research on things to try, I discovered Trapizzino. We had them on three different occasions, and they were absolutely delicious.
My overall impression is that Rome is undoubtedly an amazing city, and absolutely worth visiting at least once. But for me, the city lacks character. There are plenty of things to gawk at and explore, there are charming places and interesting neighborhoods, but none of this translates into a coherent picture of the city. Would I go to Rome again? Absolutely! Is it among my top five Italian cities? Not even close.
Rome has good high-speed train connections to major Italian cities, which makes it a perfect starting point for day trips to places like Florence. I spent close to two weeks in Florence in 2021. Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, Basilica di Santa Maria Novella, museums, my favorite lunch place and book store LaFeltrinelli RED, random encounters with the locals, food — all of this made my stay there an unforgettable experience. And I was looking forward to introducing my Florence to the missus.
Summer 2021 was a short pause after the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic had subsided and before the Omicron variant hit in earnest. So there were plenty of tourists in Florence at that time. But it was nothing compared to what awaited us in Florence this time around. Simply put, it's nigh impossible to appreciate the city when it's so tightly packed with tourists. Fortunately, Basilica di Santa Maria Novella is not on most people's take-a-selfie-and-move-on list, so we were able to enjoy it in relative peace. I'm the last person to dispense advice on what to see in Florence, but you wouldn't want to miss Santa Maria Novella, that's for sure.
After a comfortable, and expensive, ride in a Frecciarossa high-speed train from Rome to Florence, a no-frills regional train to Orvieto felt like a substantial downgrade. But a slow train was a fitting transportation medium to the birthplace of the città slow movement. And what a change of pace it was compared to Rome and Florence! With its narrow winding cobbled streets, old facades, and tiled roofs, Orvieto is a postcard Italian city. There were tourists, of course, but surprisingly not that many. Everything felt slower and calmer: you could almost feel your heartbeat slowing down. Honeysuckle was in full bloom, and its sweet smell permeated the entire city, adding another dimension to the city's character.
We did experience a rush of excitement when we reached Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta, and not only because of its impressive architecture. The piazza around it served as a stage for a meetup of the Fiat Cinquecento Orvieto club, so the entire area was filled with cinquecentos in all shapes and colors. What a stroke of luck! I ran around them taking photos like a madman.
What would you do on the last day before heading back home? Probably you'd have a slow day with a quiet dinner to wrap it up. Not us, though! The fact that we were pretty much exhausted didn't stop us from dialing it up a notch and taking another day trip — this time to Naples. It's only about an hour and a half from Rome by Frecciarossa after all, and we wouldn't have forgiven ourselves for missing the opportunity to go there.
When wandering around the Quartieri Spagnoli area, my only thought was Not enough time! The place is a cauldron of insanity: it's an assault on all your senses, and you feel completely overwhelmed by the sights, smells, and sounds. In case you don't follow soccer, the local SSC Napoli club won the Serie A championship (known as Scudetto) this year (first time in 33 years, no less). They won the championship in May, but the city was still in full celebration mode. It felt like even the second coming of Jesus would have been met with less enthusiasm.
While exploring the city we stumbled upon the Santa Luciella ai Librai church, advertising a "skull with ears". It was a lure impossible to resist. Yep, there was a skull. But whether what it had were ears is open for debate. Nonetheless, it was a rather unique experience. After an earthquake, the church had been abandoned for almost 30 years. It had been painstakingly restored by a group of volunteer professionals, and was reopened in 2019.
We didn't have time to try an authentic Neapolitan pizza, but we did manage to savor a Babà al Rum. In short, we had only a few hours at our disposal in Naples, and we loved every second of it.
Where are the photos, man?
You might wonder why, with all the talk about photography, I have no photos to show. Well, I'm writing this right after returning home, while my impressions are still fresh. I have to sort through all the photos and process them, and I don't want to rush things. So stay tuned!