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Trip Report Heart of Italy

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

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I did manage to get lost and by my third time returning to the same main square instead of my hotel, I knew I needed to look at a map! Success! The location of the hotel in the old city was good. It was Hotel La Locanda.

The Cinque Terre: This is a “Wow” location. So many opportunities for people to enjoy themselves in a variety of ways. While it was busy while we were there, it was not the crowds that I had been reading about and little afraid of. None of us wanted a repeat of the Vatican Museum crowds. I didn’t get that sense of Crowd while we were there at the end of September. Lots of tourists, but manageable. My highlight was just being able to explore as I wished.

I took the boat among the towns the first day prior to a group dinner. Italian food is delicious but they serve a lot of it and it takes a long time for a meal (2.5 hours). The second day I purchased a train/trail pass and explored in that manner. The hotel garden is a lovely and peaceful refuge with a gorgeous view. Several of us relaxed there for a bit in the afternoon.

The Hotel Albergo Degli Amici continued the pattern of well located hotels. They had arranged with a local laundry service to do overnight laundry service. One bag of clothes cleaned and folded for 15 euros. I was happy for this service.

There was an itinerary shift that we were told would be permanent going forward. Instead of doing the family farm lunch on the way to the Cinque Terre, we would do it on the way to Florence. This sounded great to have a full one and ½ days in the Cinque Terre. It sounded less appealing when we were informed we had a 6:45 am leaving time on the day we departed to Florence and the hotel would be providing breakfast at 6 am. I needed to remind myself of the flexibility concept at this point and that I am a morning person. One positive is that the guides did arrange for luggage transfer to and from the train station. This was a great help!

The “farm lunch” turned out to be a very interesting and tasty experience. We learned all about making olive oil, did a tasting, and then were served a typical Tuscan lunch that was locally sourced. The description in the RS itinerary doesn’t do this stop justice.

Florence: A beautiful city, but I found that coming at the end of a month of travel, I was wearing down. The hotel Torre Guelfa was my least favorite of the tour. Lots of street noise that lasted all night and 69 stairs to my 2nd floor room. It was well located. The first walking tour leaves you to find your way back to the hotel from the Academia where we saw the David statue. It was getting dark, raining hard, and I got lost (again!). Sadly, it took about 20 minutes of walking in the wrong direction before I came to my senses and used my City Mapper App to find my weary way back.

The morning entry into the Uffizi gallery is well done. We walked right to the entrance and went right in. When I exited the museum hours later, the line was huge and stretched longer than a city block. I found that the pace of the local guide was quite slow and that all the standing was getting painful. I excused myself to our RS guide and wandered through the rest of the museum by myself. One happy find was the café on a lovely roof terrace at the museum where I refreshed myself and had a nice rest before continuing on in the museum.

The final group dinner. It was typical of group meals on this tour, delicious,long (2.5 hours), and in a place with no ventilation.

Covid Aspects of tour: The first guide checked for a negative test result and an immunization card from everyone prior to the first meeting. She went through the protocols and emphasized them. The second guide also stressed masking on the bus. Third guide never had to deal with the group on the bus (we only had her one night) Fourth guide never mentioned Covid precautions at all.

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However, by that time we were all trained to wear masks on the bus and she could see that. Beyond that, and the requirement to wear on public transport, mask wearing was an individual choice. I continued my practice of masking indoors and in crowded outdoor spaces.

A few tour members would have occasional coughs, but no one complained of symptoms or tested positive while on tour. Everyone (except the guide) who started the tour, ended the tour.

Overall: This tour gives glimpses of key areas of Italy, all of them beautiful and interesting. It is bound to create a desire to return.

Posted by
4472 posts

Great report but I hope you will report the anti-Catholic jokes to the RS office. I'm not Catholic, but I would have found that quite offensive, as I would also find anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim jokes. People's religion is not a laughing matter.

Posted by
2511 posts

Oh, my! Four guides!
I took this tour a few years ago and liked it a lot. I'm sorry to hear the Florence hotel disappointed--it might be my favorite RS tour hotel ever. I must have been on a different side because I don't recall any street noise.

Posted by
145 posts

Carol I always enjoy reading your posts. I find them very factual and helpful. It’s a shame that your tour of the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel left you feeling let down. We chose to travel during shoulder season in hopes that the crowds wouldn’t be so fierce but I guess the word is out, lol. So glad that Cinque Terre was so enjoyable. We leave for Italy tomorrow and we are so excited. Our daughter and our sil will be making a side trip from Venice to Cinque Terre before meeting up with us in Florence. Thanks for the reminder that in order to fully enjoy (our first) our trip to Italy we must remain flexible.

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3334 posts

I enjoyed reading your trip report. Our excellent Vatican Museum experience was primarily thanks to Kismet/Fortuna. When we were at the end of a very long line, someone approached us offering places on the "Official English Language Vatican Tour". Turns out, it actually was the "Official English Language Vatican Tour". Otherwise, I think we might still be standing in that line.

...the philosophical discrepancies between the wealth of the Vatican and the message of Christ.

We had that moment in the Seville Cathedral. My husband and I struggled to appreciate the beauty of the church in light of how the money to build it was made.

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2233 posts

Thanks for this thorough tour report. I’ve been following your run up to your travels and it’s been fun to follow along. It sounds like you had quite a test of your flexibility with the rotating guide situation. The Heart of Italy was our first RS tour twelve years ago. Interestingly, we had the same experience with the Vatican tour. We must have had an early start, because the Sistine Chapel wasn’t very busy, but the hoards in the hallway meant all I concentrated on was staying with the group and not getting trampled. We came away feeling let down and actually didn’t enjoy Rome. For years we said we had no desire to revisit. We loved the rest of the tour, which used to go in the reverse direction. Fast forward to 2019 and the RS Southern Italy tour which starts in Rome. The Vatican is not included in that tour and we had a Catholic travel companion who felt this might be his only visit. We hired a private guide, ended up as the last admittance time and had a completely different experience. Seeing the museum and St. Peter’s nearly empty was a memorable experience. I hope some day you’ll get a chance to do it again.

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2252 posts

Thanks, Carol, for the wonderful trip report. Wow…4 guides and no one on the tour caught covid-Serendipity! I’m glad you enjoyed the tour in spite of the less than desirable Vatican visit. For me the Sistine Chapel ceiling was beautiful but I felt so overwhelmed by the crowds I didn’t enjoy the experience as much as I had thought I would. I must admit I felt the same about the Vatican Museum. I enjoyed your post very much and felt like I was lost right there with you! Thank you for taking the time to post your experience.

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3961 posts

Carol- Thanks for sharing your candid report. I enjoyed reading it! Sorry to hear about the four guides! It sounded like your expected flexibility was the key. I commend you. Your points about the Vatican experience is good feedback. Good to hear the Colosseum tour was a better experience. Nothing better than having a guide whose enthusiasm is contagious! We haven’t been to CT or Volterra since 2006. Fond memories of both.

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11493 posts

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.”

Hopefully you reported this to RS HQ.

They obviously are challenged in finding 'healthy' guides, but this sounds like desperation.

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8629 posts

@Joe. This was not one of the 4 RS tour guides. This was a local guide from Rome. She did great the next day at the colosseum, but did have issues at the Vatican.

I will include feedback about her on my end of tour survey to RS. I get the impression that the local guides, who work as independent contractors, develop a spiel and go with it. People must have laughed (indeed some of my group did) at her jokes in the past so she thought it was good. I do think that this disrespect to other ways of thinking that is contrary to RS tour philosophy,

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11485 posts

Carol now retired, you had an amazing trip and I love how you embraced the changes along the way and made the tour work for you, planning your free time, etc.

69 steps to my room with luggage would do me in and I am in pretty good shape!

Posted by
3997 posts

As always, a well written, concise trip report. We were lucky when visiting the Sistine Chapel, with Walks of Italy, with early entry. I was more captivated by the other painting in the room, The Last Judgement. I couldn’t walk away. Yet it is hardly referred to. Thanks for taking the time to write.

Posted by
14249 posts

Thank you for your frank trip report. 4 guides is difficult and yes, especially with an 8-night tour it degrades the group bonding experience unless you bonded in the face of adversity! After the first guide was pulled were the other guides changed because they tested positive or just had other obligations?

This was my first RS tour and I enjoyed it immensely. I particularly liked Volterra for all the reasons you listed.

I appreciate your honest assessment.

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3355 posts

Sounds like you were still able to enjoy the tour Carol. Interesting times……. I do hope these issues are gone by late next year when we are signed up for our next RS tour.

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14249 posts

Well, the good thing about the Scrovegni is that the # of people in there is severely limited.

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99 posts

I think that for Rome in general, small-group skip-the-line early-access tours (or after hours) are better (although more expensive). We took a very early tour to the Sistine Chapel that allowed us to go in before the general public and even had breakfast at a courtyard in the Vatican. For the Colosseum, they took us to places that most tourists don't go like the underground.

For the open attractions, being super early also helps. At night there were still crowds.

Regarding the Vatican, I was in awe of the Sistine Chapel. I think that it's okay to be impressed by the places we visit while still being upset with the history behind it. If we don't do it, we couldn't visit the Colosseum, or the Tower of London, or, really, almost any church of any denomination or any secular historical building.

The quote below is from Italy: Rome - Rick Steves Travel Talks:

"For years, I went to St. Peter's Basilica as a Lutheran with an attitude, and it was a horrible experience. I didn't enjoy it. Park your protestant sword, if you have one, at the door. Become a Catholic, at least temporarily, when you go to St. Peter's Basilica. See it on its terms. Celebrate it. It's an amazing place." --Rick Steves.

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7448 posts

Wow, flexibility was the key to this one! Glad you were prepared to embrace it, Carol!

One piece you mentioned that bothered me was when you were in Florence and had to find your way back to the hotel in the evening when it was raining. Knowing that this could be someone’s first Rick Steve’s tour and especially that there’s usually solo travelers, I didn’t like hearing that people had to find their way across the upper section of the central city back to the river area. I am very safety conscious when traveling solo and wouldn’t have appreciated that situation! When I’ve been on past RS tours, the guides were always very clear about how to get back, and those times were in the middle of the morning or early afternoon. For anyone else traveling soon, please be sure to always have your hotel name & address in your purse - the business cards in the lobby are helpful, and don’t hesitate to take a taxi back to your hotel, if needed.

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6373 posts

Carol-n-r, thank you for this report. I love your attitude and willingness to roll with the punches.

I've been to the Vatican Museum twice on RSE tours, and both times were very crowded, especially the most recent visit, in 2018. I would love to go again, but on one of the very early or very late private tours, when perhaps it would be easier to actually enjoy the art and architecture without being carried along on a wave of humanity.

On our very first RSE tour, the late, lamented Best of Florence, we stayed at the Torre Guelfa. We were disappointed that our room opened onto an airshaft, but changed our minds hearing complaints the next day from people who had rooms facing the street. As I recall, their main complaint was morning church bells, which we couldn't hear at all.

I considered taking umbrage at some of the comments about what is or isn't worth seeing, having been enchanted by both the Last Supper and the Scrovegni Chapel, but opted for deep breathing instead.

Thanks again for a great trip report.

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8629 posts

@pam. Each of the other guides had others obligations. They were each extremely generous to do what they could to make this tour work.

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14249 posts

Thank you Carol for the extra information!

Posted by
698 posts

Carol, out of curiosity, what tour did your original guide leave your tour to conduct? (We were originally scheduled to be on the Southern Italy tour starting 09/19, but decided to put off touring this year.)

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1 posts

Thanks so much for the detailed trip review! It is very helpful as we are trying to decide between doing the Heart of Italy Tour and the Best of Tuscany Tour in May of 2023. This will be our first Rick Steves Tour.

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2491 posts

Thank for sharing. Your Vatican Museum experience sounds just like mine back in 2007 and I'm sure it'll be the same when I go in Dec.

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15 posts

I'm with you--I was so looking forward to the Vatican museum and the Sistine Chapel and they were my least favorite part of the trip. Funny thing is that my husband and I managed to leave the Sistine Chapel through the wrong door and ended up in another part of the museum and I would have love to be able to explore it and it was empty but we were able to rejoin our group and then couldn't figure out how to get back there. Here is my trip review