I knew that flexibility was going to be the key word for travel in 2022 and this trip certainly proved this to be true. We had 4 different Rick Steves guides over the course of 8 days and there was no guide at all on day 9. This was the result of a guide for a different tour testing positive for Covid just before that tour was due to start. The guide that we started our tour with was pulled from our tour as she was only one of a few qualified to lead that tour. I do have to express my appreciation to the substitute guides who each dropped what they were doing and came to help our tour on its way. This did change the dynamics of the tour quite a bit, but it didn’t mean it was a negative experience, just a different. It did impact our experience significantly by the end. It didn’t really matter about day 9 since that is eat breakfast and tour over day. I felt bad for those who this was their first Rick Steves Tour because they didn’t really get a sense of what a typical tour is like.
Rome: I made the decision to splurge on a taxi from the airport to the hotel and was quite glad that I did. The Hotel Smeraldo is well located, but it would have been a process to find it using public transport the first time. One of the best features of the hotel is that it is walkable to many major sights and across the street from an amazing bakery/pizzeria. Quite a number of food tours stop there and there is often a line of locals out the door.
My word of caution for Rome is to be sure to think about your free time options in advance. Two factors come into play. First, some options such as the Borghese Gallery require getting tickets far in advance of your tour. Secondly, if your tour starts on a Sunday as ours did, you will find many museums closed on your free time on Monday. I was thankful I had arranged to go to the Borghese Gallery prior to the official start of the tour. Several tour members were disappointed/frustrated that some museum options were not available.
Speaking of disappointments… The Vatican Museum experience was not at all what I had expected. I thought we would explore some of its amazing collection with our local guide telling us the back story. Instead, we had explanations of how the Vatican pharmacy worked and a fair amount of anti-Catholic jokes. The crowds were immense and we were often herded along with the guide saying, “I am not allowed to stop here.” Thankfully, all tour members chose to wear masks here in the crowds. The Sistine Chapel was full, hot, and stuffy. It was not a “wow” moment for me, but easily could be for someone else. Two of our group members misunderstood the directions and took the wrong exit. There was no retrieving them and we met them back at the hotel later. We were able to go from the Sistine Chapel to St Paul’s directly which was nice. We were allowed to explore St Paul’s on our own which I enjoyed.
I had wondered if my disappointment was because my expectations were so unrealistic. Conversations with several tour mates informed me that others also felt let down by either the touring experience at the Vatican or the philosophical discrepancies between the wealth of the Vatican and the message of Christ.
The Colosseum and Forum the next morning were an entirely different experience with the same local guide leading an excellent tour. This tour was full of good background information that enhanced the experience. The guide’s enthusiasm for her topic was contagious.
Volterra: This is an extremely interesting city and I was glad we were staying in the city itself. The morning and evening hours were much more relaxing than mid day in terms of tourist demand, but it all felt like a welcome break from the tourist crush of Rome.The group dinner was excellent and reflected regional cuisine. Our local guide was passionate about the history of the area and the walking tour was excellent. The afternoon was free to explore and enjoy the slower pace