Making the Most of My Layovers: 72 Hours in Italy

Only a few minutes after crossing into Italy from the Slovenian border, I felt at home—the stucco rooftops and glimpses of the ocean gave life to the place I had conjured in my mind for years. My great-grandparents grew up in a small Italian mountain town, but I had yet to visit the country. Hands pressed against the bus window, I debated the possibility of not sleeping during my three days in Italy. I could have—and still would—move there without a second thought.

I had always planned on my first visit to Italy being a long one. Two weeks minimum, my trip would cross the entire country, with stops in both the famous cities and small towns. Yet I had a week in between my hostel job in Poland ending and my teaching job in Morocco starting, and realized that flights to Morocco were significantly cheaper out of Naples than they were out of Krakow or Warsaw. The 30+ hours of trains and buses I took, from Poland to Slovenia to Italy, gave me only 72 hours in Italy before my flight to Casablanca. Never one for direct travel, my transport from Ljubljana, Slovenia to Naples included a six-hour stop in Trieste; my flight from Naples to Casablanca had a 21-hour layover in Rome. Here are the brief snapshots of Italy I saw during that time.

Stop 1: Trieste

Trieste appeared as the bus rounded a bend, breaks in the passing trees revealing the houses built upward. The city features a great ocean view, centuries-old architecture, and countless gelato stands, minus the tourists. Although lesser known than other Italian cities, Trieste provides for a perfect recluse from the summer crowds.

Stucco rooftops amidst trees.
My first view of Trieste

With only six hours in Trieste, I wanted to see as much as I could. I started at the port and crossed through the city center, then took a bus to Parco San Giovanni. Formerly a psychiatric hospital, the park now features extensive rose gardens and the restaurant Il Posto delle Fragole. The park, on top of the hill on which Trieste sits, offers an even quieter alternative to central Trieste. I ended my afternoon by wandering through the city’s side streets, stopping for gelato and tiramisu before my train departed. With many historical sites left to see—the Roman ruins, Miramare Castle, and the Saint Giusto Castle and Cathedral—I will need to return.

Stop 2: Naples

Pinks and oranges covered the sky as my train departed from Trieste and the city receded with the setting sun. True to my promise earlier that day, I did not sleep during the eleven-hour train ride, and instead watched the distant city lights throughout the night. I had a little over a day in Naples before my flight to Rome, and, in an attempt to avoid the heat, took a ferry to the nearby island of Procida.

Distant boats and buildings at Procida's harbor.
Procida’s harbor

Always searching for moments of serenity while traveling, especially in larger cities, I appreciated Procida’s calm atmosphere. With most tourists headed on the ferries to Capri, Procida remains relatively uncrowded. Seaside cafes line the island’s edges, offering drinks, gelato, and seafood for decent prices. Side streets weave through the pastel-colored buildings, and a hike to the highest point of the island overlooks the harbor. I spent most of my first day in Naples here, soaking up the ocean scent and watching passing boats.

I had heard mixed reviews of Naples before arriving, and did not regret skipping out on a day in the city to see Procida. Yet Naples makes up for its grittiness and smog with its cuisine. I indulged in a pizza from Oliva Pizzeria, sfogliatella (a pastry that originated in Naples) and copious amounts of gelato. Even my Alitalia flight included a meal of fruit, finger sandwiches, and cheesecake—a testament to Italy’s quality of food.

Stop 3: Rome

My layover in Rome began with me accidentally taking the tram from the airport to the outskirts of the city, followed by an hour-long walk to my hostel in order to avoid any more mix-ups on public transport. This didn’t deter me from continuing to walk, however. I spent most of my time in Rome exploring the city by foot, and stand by my belief that walking is the best way to get to know a new place.

The Vatican and surrounding buildings in the early morning.
The entrance to Vatican City

I timed my self-guided walking tour of Rome based on my flights, which resulted in me avoiding the crowds and hitting the city’s famous sights during an ideal time of day. At night, a soft yellow glow emanated from the Colosseum’s walls, and only small groups of people clustered around it. In the early morning, the line for the Vatican had only just begun, and the rising sun hit it in just the right light. And, of course, a walk into Vatican City meant a new country added to my growing list.

An Eventual Return

As I knew before arriving in Italy, three days was nowhere near enough time to explore the country. The three cities I visited gave me a mere taste of the Italian lifestyle, with much left to see. As I boarded my flight to Casablanca, I promised to return to Italy with more time: to visit my family’s hometown in the north, to spend a couple days in the cities I missed on this trip, and, of course, to continue my search for the best gelato.

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