Keeping Matt Sane #1: Italy


These blogs can get a little bit repetitive now and again, and possibly a bit depressing too – it is about cancer after all. So I’ve decided to dedicate the odd blog for stuff that has kept me happy and sane over the past few months. It will make me happy writing them, so hopefully it will make you smile reading them.

For the first of these – let’s call them the Keeping Matt Sane blogs – it would be unfair to start anywhere else but Italy. Nothing has brought me more joy over the past few years, let alone months, than Italy has. Or, more to the point, the stuff that happened in Italy. It was three weeks of bliss in an otherwise stormy few months, and it kept both myself and my fiancée Gemma going for weeks afterwards.

We had talked about the idea of going travelling around Europe for years. The idea of getting a campervan and just going where we pleased really appealed to us both, but neither of us had taken a gap year after school and both of us had landed career jobs almost instantly after graduating from university. It always felt out of reach for as long as we were working.

We did the obligatory 'holding up the tower' photo but I didn't want to be too cliché!

We did the obligatory ‘holding up the tower’ photo but I didn’t want to be too cliché!

I wouldn’t say the first thing that popped into my head after being diagnosed with cancer was ‘WOOO let’s book a holiday’! I had three months to recover from surgery but I was still hopeful of returning to my career, especially after it was clear the operation had been a success. But after one morning back at my desk, it was clear I wasn’t ready. I handed in my resignation, shed a few tears and focused on getting better both mentally and physically.

But it soon dawned on me that I now had the summer off. And that Gemma, being a teacher, had a few weeks away from her job too. So we talked about a trip and decided three weeks was the right amount. We’d have to dip into the savings we hoped would be put on a house, but that now seemed a long way off so it didn’t matter too much.

I went out and bought a road map. Of France, for some reason. We hadn’t actually decided on a country and for some reason I had thought of France. For days I researched the best places. My plan was to fly into Bordeaux and rent a car before driving south into Spain, eventually visiting Barcelona, and then cruising around the south of France before either flying home from Nice or driving up to Lyon and flying from there.

After careful consideration I finally approached Gemma with the big reveal and reached for the map to show her the route I had chosen. But as I sprawled the map out onto the table, she stopped me and simply said: “But I want to go to Italy?”

So I went out and bought an Italy map instead, and did the same.

We talked about a few routes, but settled on this one: To fly into Venice and stay there for a few days, then get the train to Pisa and stay overnight after seeing the tower. Then we would hire a car and drive through Tuscany, staying in a town called Tarquinia for five days. Then we would drive to Rome Airport to drop off the car before staying there for my 26th birthday, before heading to the Amalfi Coast for a week and then flying home from Naples.

It sounds complicated now, but it just seemed to flow together so easily.

The view from the famous Capri chairlift. It's even better from the top.

The view from the famous Capri chairlift. It’s even better from the top.

We had already spontaneously booked a flight to Venice to make sure we couldn’t back out, and then the rest just followed. It was easy for me to arrange because I had so much time to arrange it. I was at home all day and I didn’t have a job, so I focused everything I had into making sure we had the best time possible.

It took weeks to put it all together but by May almost everything was sorted. Yet later that month the whole trip was thrown into doubt when we found out the cancer had returned. There was talk of open chest surgery, which would have definitely meant we had to cancel the trip, and there was general confusion on what treatment route I should take. It seems silly now but I felt so good that I was more concerned about the trip than about me.

In the end, my consultant decided to let us go away and decide what to do about me on my return. It felt great at the time but with hindsight it was probably the wrong decision. But at least I got my holiday!

The last thing to sort out, travel insurance, became impossible because there was no definite plan from the hospital for me. So in the end I thought ‘screw it, I’m going anyway’. So I did. Who needs travel insurance, anyway?

Gemma showing off her shiny new ring at the spot where we got engaged.

Gemma showing off her shiny new ring at the spot where we got engaged.

So there we were, 5am on Friday, July 28, 2015, sat in Birmingham Airport waiting for our flight. Friends had bought us tickets for the VIP Lounge so we scoffed on a posh bacon sandwich and chilled in comfy seats taking it all in. We couldn’t believe we were going to Italy.

What is there to say about Venice that hasn’t been said? It was incredible. The apartment we stayed in, within walking distance from the main transport hub in Piazzale Roma, was incredible. We loved everything about the place, and spent our first day just wondering around in amazement.

The second day was even better, as Gemma and I got engaged. I was so scared about losing the ring that I wanted to get it out of the way as early in the trip as possible. I’d even got my mum to sew a secret pocket into my hand luggage so Gemma didn’t find it, and had left a note for the customs people to ‘please be subtle’ if they stopped me. I had a bag full of medications and supplements so assumed they would, but they didn’t.

In the morning I left the ring in the apartment’s safe and we went out and got lost – a great experience in itself – before stumbling upon the San Pantalon Church. From the outside it looks like one of the few unremarkable buildings in this remarkable place. But go inside and put 50c in the machine, and you are treated to the most beautiful ceiling decoration. We later visited the Sistine Chapel but if I had to choose between the two, I’d go with San Pantalon every time.

In the evening we grabbed some food and then the customary €100 gondola ride, before hopping on a waterbus over to St Mark’s Square. I’d sneaked our earphones and a splitter into my rucksack before we came out, which meant we could listen to cheesy Italian music while we stumbled across all the bridges along the promenade. We finally rested up on a ship bollard that gave us a view back towards Venice and its main sites. It was the perfect place for a proposal, and I’m glad to say Gemma didn’t hesitate in her answer!

To top off the night we secured the best two seats on the waterbus back, and enjoyed what seemed like a private boat ride back along the Grand Canal. The holiday was made and we were only two days in.

Unfortunately though, this blog is now 1,000 words in, so I’ll skip Pisa and Tuscany. They were great. Driving a hire car was great. Not crashing was great, although getting beeped at A LOT wasn’t so great. We didn’t take it personally.

Enjoying the Colosseum

Enjoying the Colosseum

Rome was all about two things for us – The Colosseum and The Vatican. I’m glad we pre-booked tours through Viator for both because the queues were mind-blowing, and passing right by them was surprisingly rewarding if uncharacteristic for Brits such as ourselves. The Colosseum and Roman Forum were brilliant but they were outdone by the grandeur of the Vatican. Each room brought a new story, with my favourite bit being the Gallery of Maps because I’m an unashamed geography geek.

St Peter’s Basilica was just incredible, and we even climbed up its dome to get a unique view across Rome. It’s worth the wonky stair journey up and down, even if you have a hint of claustrophobia like me, although I did struggle in places.

I'm not scared of heights but the dome at St Peter's Basilica on a stormy day got me wobbling.

I’m not scared of heights but the dome at St Peter’s Basilica on a stormy day got me wobbling.

But even the view from the dome didn’t match our final destination – the Amalfi Coast. I’d arranged for us to stay in an apartment that sat in the hills above the famous town of Positano. It had reviews of 9.9 which I’d never seen before and it was much, much cheaper than Positano because it wasn’t in the centre. So it had the best of both worlds for us.

However, when I say it was in the hills above the town, I mean it was a 45-minute crammed bus ride away, and the journey from Rome was a manic one. We got a train from Rome to Salerno and then a boat to Positano, which was awesome but docked onto the beach leaving us to somehow make our way up through the town with our suitcases.

To make matters worse, one of the wheels had fallen off my case and I just had to lug it up the cobbled paths into the square where the bus would be. Thankfully a really nice American guy offered to pull Gemma’s suitcase, not realising she had brought everything but the kitchen sink. The poor bloke was shattered by the time we reached our destination.

This was the view from our balcony in the village of Nocelle, above Positano.

This was the view from our balcony in the village of Nocelle, above Positano on the Amalfi Coast.

A ridiculously crammed bus journey followed taking us to our village, called Nocelle, but we still weren’t finished travelling when we got there. The only way of travelling through the village is either by walking or via donkey and, without the second option being available to us, we were forced to again pull our suitcases through the narrow streets or up and down the stairs.

But finally, after hours of travelling, we arrived and met our host Amalia. I could probably reserve an

Our host Amalia stole the show for our last week, bringing us fresh food everyday and being a generally awesome host.

Our host Amalia stole the show for our last week, bringing us fresh food everyday and being a generally awesome host.

entire blog for Amalia. She’s an amazing lady, so bubbly and hospitable. Every day she would bring us fresh food, and it meant that over the week we hardly spent a penny. She even travelled to Sorrento especially to get me some famous Amalfi Coast lemons that I had asked her about. One night she stayed and chatted with us about the area and her family for about two or three hours. She had some amazing tales and told us how the people lived into their 90s because they ate such fresh food and lived such active lifestyles. It almost made me wish I could stay with life expectancy that high. It might’ve rubbed off on me!

There was only one thing that could match Amalia, and that was the view from her apartment. I don’t think I’ll ever see anything that could match it. I’ll let the pictures doing the talking because I’m not sure what I could say to justify its beauty.

Me trying to look like I know what I'm doing but in truth just trying not to break anything...

Me trying to look like I know what I’m doing but in truth just trying not to break anything…

We spent the week either relaxing or exploring Positano, or cooking. Gemma dreamed up a pasta dish which was just the tastiest thing I’ve ever had. The fresh tomatoes tasted like nothing I’ve ever eaten and we topped it off with some fresh basil picked ourselves from Amalia’s garden. Perfect. On one day we even went on a private cooking course, in an actual restaurant kitchen, with the head chef. We made stuffed zucchini flowers, ricotta ravioli, gnocchi and chocolate lava cake. I impressed myself considering my usual dish is a couple of hot dogs wrapped in a slice of bread.

There was one small hiccup during the week which was very funny, for me at least. A new Turkish couple had checked-in to the apartment above us and it didn’t take long for them to start screaming and shouting. We assumed the woman was moaning to the man about the apartment’s location – maybe they’d been caught out too, and didn’t realise just how long a journey it was to the apartment and back from Positano.

The guilty party: This was the snake that found its way onto Gemma's head. In the end he was more scared than Gem and scuttled off into the vegetation below our balcony.

The guilty party: This was the snake that found its way onto Gemma’s head. In the end he was more scared than Gem and scuttled off into the vegetation below our balcony.

But no – suddenly Gemma caught the screaming bug too. She started jumping up and down, shouting that something had fallen on her head. The culprit? The man above, not realising that we were on the terrace below, had thrown a snake off his balcony and onto Gemma’s head. I laughed my head off for hours. Poor old Gemma had been oblivious to the shouting because she was wearing her earphones. We had just enough time to take a photo of the slippery little thing before it sneaked into the vegetation below. Gem, meanwhile, legged it in the shower so she could feel clean again!

To top off the week, on the final night we were treated to both a thunderstorm and a firework display. The storm was pretty scary at first. We had bought some pizza from a village takeaway so we sat by the window and just watched it happen as we scoffed on our food. But as it drifted away, we went out onto the balcony and tried to catch each bolt of lightning on our camera. We came away with some great shots, including one I’ve posted below this blog.

If we’d have been in the UK the planned firework display would definitely have been cancelled for health and safety reasons with the storm going on. But instead they just delayed it, and at around midnight we headed into the village square and looked down into Positano as fireworks were released from a boat in the bay.

Looking down on the fireworks, because we were so high, was a weird but incredible experience and was one I’ll never forget. What an amazing way to end an amazing holiday.

Thank you Gemma for the best three weeks of my life xxx



Here’s a selection of some other photos from the holiday:

Me, Gem and er, Michele, enjoying a Gondola ride among the canals of Dorsoduro.

Me, Gem and er, Michele, enjoying a Gondola ride among the canals of Dorsoduro.

The view from the walled town of Tarquinia across the south Tuscan countryside.

The view from the walled town of Tarquinia across the south Tuscan countryside.

This was the stand out shot from the spectacular thunderstorm we were treated to.

This was the stand out shot from the spectacular thunderstorm we were treated to.

The fireworks in Positano's bay were a perfect end to a perfect trip.

The fireworks in Positano’s bay were a perfect end to a perfect trip.


Matt Bates

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