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Trip report of Best of Italy in 17 days tour

I have been so busy since returning from our amazing trip to Italy that I am just now getting together my trip report. Our tour left on September 25th. I tried to write up a journal entry at the end of each day as we went along so I wouldn't forget the details, and was good about that until Siena, where I kind of fell off the wagon. I wanted to write up a shorter report for you all, but I just haven't had the time. So I decided I will share my journal here for anyone interested in reading the novel :) If you have any questions, please feel free to ask! Our overall impression was that this was a lovely trip with a near-perfect itinerary that exceeded all our high expectations, just like our other tours to Scotland and Germany, Austria and Switzerland. We had almost perfect weather, with only one real day of rain, which is unbelievable. I felt like we did not click with our group quite the same way we did on our other tours, but nevertheless found everyone to be considerate and kind and we enjoyed the company of all our tour companions.

9/24
Our travel to Italy was a bit rough. We got little-to-no sleep on the plane – our worst flight yet. The seats were as tight as domestic flights; there were no individual air vents, so the cabin was hot and stuffy, and there were no screens for movies at each seat - just a few drop down screens in the middle rows that played 1 movie for the whole flight. It was horrible, definitely the most uncomfortable international flight we have ever taken, and we have sworn off ever flying with American Airlines again (we booked through British Airways, but AA operated this flight). We arrived in Milan tired and cranky and hungry only to end up in line for passport control for an hour. We wandered around Milan Central looking for the baggage dropoff and then waited in line there. We finally made it to the Duomo, which was breathtaking. We immediately went to the mall across the street where we ordered delicious sandwiches and where I dropped my drink on the floor and then fell down a step to the table, garnering stares from the locals. Way to make an impression! After our meal, we felt human again and we visited the Duomo interior and rooftop before heading back to Milan Central and picking up our bags and heading to Varenna. As soon as we arrived here, everything was worth it. Our hotel was beautiful with the most amazing view of the hotel garden and Lake Como from our room. We dropped our bags and then wandered through the beautiful gardens before heading into town to wander about. We finished the day with a lovely dinner at the hotel. I had gnocchi (that was purple!) and tempura vegetables, while David had a steak and a pasta dish with dried meat and a cream sauce. We shared a cheese plate – which was out of this world – and a bottle of wine before heading in to bed. We managed to make it awake until 10 pm! Take that, jet lag!

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9/25
We woke up rested this morning and had a nice breakfast in our hotel. We decided to walk to Villa Monastero next door to visit the gardens. The weather was beautiful – clear, blue skies and tempuratures in the mid 70’s. The gardens were unbelievable. Beautiful, manicured gardens with an amazing view over the lake and surrounding mountains. Then we took a steep hike up the mountain to Castillo Vezio, a ruined castle that was started in the 6th century. There wasn’t much left of the castle, but it afforded pretty views of the lakes, and we were able to see a number of hawks they keep on site. We also wandered through the little village of Vezio where we walked old cobblestone paths and listened to the birds chirping and some random marching band that we couldn’t locate. It felt like the movies. Then we went and had lunch with a water view. I had a delicious caprese salad and parmesan risotto, and David had mushroom and ham pizza. After lunch, we had a bit of gelato and strolled through town before meeting our group. Everyone seemed great. We had a nice dinner on the terrace of our hotel consisting of a mix of local cheeses and buckwheat pasta. Perfect setting for a meal, and great start to our tour! We instantly loved our guide, Donald, who is a Scottish transplant to Italy.
9/26
This morning we took a ferry to Villa Carlotta and wandered through the gardens. It was much bigger than the villa yesterday, but we enjoyed the smaller gardens more. Then we went to Bellagio. We wandered the town and stopped for some pizza. We really liked Varenna much better – Bellagio was much busier and seemed more commercial. We took the ferry home and relaxed in our hotel room, reading and listening to the music from a beautiful wedding in the courtyard below our window. We met the group for appetizers and drinks on a lovely terrace and then walked back through town for gelato. We ate it on a rock wall overlooking the mountains and lake, and it was just so picturesque. The town was much quieter than the weekend. Over all, a very nice day with a perfect finish.

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9/27
Today we departed Varenna to head north, stopping at our first Autogrill along the way. It was a bit hectic, especially ordering coffee. Thankfully, Donald was there to guide us through the process. It is surprising just how much information is needed to successfully navigate the culture of an Autogrill! We then headed to Verona, the largest city in the Venice region, made famous by Shakespeare as the setting for Romeo and Juliet. Verona is a busy city, but it has managed to maintain authentic and antiquated aesthetics. There is a Roman arena dating back to AD 40 that is still in relatively good condition and in use today (for music not gladiator battles). The arena has 68 large stone arches (72 at construction) and seated 15,000 in the days of the Roman Empire. Additionally, there are remnants of Roman walls and buildings throughout the city. The city was the domain of the Scala family, who made their fortune producing ladders. The family decorated their buildings with swallowtail accents signifying their political alliance with the emperor rather than with the Pope (which would be signified with square finishings). The city has several public squares, with off-shooting alleys, that demonstrate its character and beauty. To learn about Verona, we took a walking tour of the city with our local guide, Valeria. At the conclusion of the tour, we wandered out of the city square and across the river for views from a higher vantage point, stopping for a six euro lunch of focaccia bread with toppings and drinks. We climbed a series of stairways to the lower level of the Castel overlooking the city, as we could not go to the top due to construction. After snapping a few photos, we wandered back into the downtown and had the best gelato we have had to this point before making our way to the balcony of Juliet Capulet…yes, the fictitious character has her own home, tomb, balcony, and statue (which tourists are supposed to fondle for better dating success). Amazingly and, perhaps sadly, this was the busiest attraction in the city. We then met up with our group to head to the Dolomites, specifically Alpe di Siusi in Italian or Seiseralm in German. Both languages are necessary as this is Northern Italy but Southern Tirol. The Germanic/Austrian heritage is predominant in this region. We stayed at Pension Seelaus, were the views were stunning and the food amazing.

9/28
We woke up this morning to beautiful, clear blue skies. After a quick breakfast, we rode our bus up to the nearest village. David and I broke off from the group at that point and rode a chairlift up to a spot called “Panorama.” And that it was! The Dolomites are unlike anything we have seen, and the beauty took our breath away. There is no way to describe this area in words. We spent all day wandering in the sunshine looking at peak after peak, listening to cowbells in the meadows, and checking out the wildflowers. We took a hike through many meadows on mostly level ground, but with a few vigerous ups and downs thrown in for good measure. We hiked to Zallinger where we had a great german meal of weiner schnitzel and frankfurters before taking the Floralpina lift to Saltria and then catching a bus to Compatsch. From there we decided to rush to take a cable car up to Puflatsch – we probably shouldn’t have done this because we only had 20 minutes at the top before the cable car was closing and it wasn’t much different than the views we had all day. Then we walked back to our hotel and did buddy introductions. Between introductions and dinner, we stepped outside to photograph the most beautiful sunset over the mountains. We then had another 5 course german style meal. Everything was amazing unbelievably wonderful. This stop would be hard to top!

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9/29
This morning we left the Alps to head to Venice. We stopped in Bolzano to see Otzi, the Ice Man. He was found in 1991 and was dated to the 3000’s b.c. He was thought to be found in Austria and became known as “Frozen Fritz” worldwide. Later they discovered he was actually found in Italy, so the body was moved back there. He is kept at a precise temperature with almost 100% humidity. Lots of other pieces were found with him, such as clothes and weapons. They were able to learn a lot about the time period by analyzing his bones and looking at the contents of his GI system. The museum was entirely about Otzi, but it was fascinating. We had some time to wander around Bolzano and enjoyed a sandwich on a bench in front of the cathedral before getting back on the bus. When we arrived in Venice, we took a vaparetto (water bus) into the city and then walked through the alleys to our hotel, Hotel Mercurio, which was in the center. Our hotel room was tiny with a shower that was difficult to maneuver in, but we expected this and it was definitely worth the sacrifice of space for such an amazing location, just minutes from San Marco. It is just as picturesque as we thought, though a lot more crowded than we expected. We headed to San Marco and arrived just as the sun was hitting the gold tiles of the mosaic tiles on the front of the basilica, which was so beautiful it took my breath away. Then we took a walk through the back alleys and took our gondola ride. We rode through canals just around sunset, allowing for the most beautiful lighting. We had musicians accompany us, and it couldn’t have been more perfect. Then we had a group dinner with the best pasta of the trip so far – carbonara and a lasagna loaded with cheese. All in all, a wonderful, dreamlike day.

9/30
We woke up early to get views of the city before it was busy. It was interesting to watch all the deliveries happening by boat. After breakfast, we met Elizabeta, our guide. She gave us a very interesting tour of the city. We visited a workshop where the forculas (oar locks) and oars for the gondolas are made. We learned about the extensive training required to become a gondolier, and that they have to buy their own boat, which costs thousands of dollars. We then walked into St. Mark’s Basillica, which is just jaw-dropping. The entire ceiling is covered in gold mosaics. We learned that it used to belong to Doge’s Palace, and later was used as a religious building. The domes on the original building had a tall dome placed on top to make it look more like a church. After the tour, we walked to the vaparetto, grabbing a quick, delicious grilled sandwich of veggies and cheese and meat and cheese on the way. We rode to Murano where we visited some shops and had a gelato. Murano looked like a quaint, miniature version of Venice. After that, we went on to Burano. This village was amazing! We took in all the brightly colored houses and wandered through the back alleys to see a glimpse into real life there. After returning to Venice, we went to the Curror museum to get tickets for Doge’s Palace. We got in line for the bell tower at 6:30 and got up just at sunset for a view of the city just as the lights were coming on! Then we visited Doge’s Palace at 8. Donald had advised us to do this visit later because it was open until 11 that night and we would have the place to ourselves. And we did! The palace was so ornate, with gold leaf and painted ceilings everywhere. The visit didn’t take long because it was empty. After that we went to dinner at Vino Vino near the opera house and had a delicious dinner with more carbonara, ravioli, steak and chicken and a caprese salad. We were amazed at all we’d been able to do in our day in Venice, and nothing felt rushed. We really enjoyed St. Marks square with the music playing, but we were disappointed in all the push sellers of flowers and pigeon food and toys – really ruined the ambiance for me.

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10/1
This morning we left Venice on a cool, misty morning and headed for Florence. We stopped midafternoon to eat at an Autogrille where we got a nice selection of fresh pastas, meats, cheeses and salads served cafeteria style. Puts our rest stops to shame! We had delicious seasoned mozzarella cheese there. We hit the ground running when we got to Florence. We took a little orientation tour around the central part of town where we saw the Duomo. This is one of the most magnificent buildings. The pink, green and white colors were made by natural marble located in different regions of Italy. It had beautiful scrollwork and details all over. Then we went to the Plazza in front of the Palazo Vecchio which has an outdoor art display. We met our guide Ricardo who took us first into the Ufuzzi gallery to see beautiful paintings by Bottichelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo. Unbelievable works of art, and also unbelievably crowded, almost unpleasantly so. Ricardo taught us to handle crowds with his motto: "Smile, and be aggressive." This became our motto for the rest of the trip! After that we went to the Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David, prisoners and pieta. Normally this is done on the second day in Florence, but the second day was the first Sunday in the month, which means the museums are free and there is no way to get group reservations. After the galleries, we met to have an optional dinner Donald had arranged for us at a local resteraunt. We were served traditional Tuscan food. We had a tomato based soup with bread in it called Pappa al Pomodoro, wild boar ragu, Florentine steak and potatoes, and dessert of our choice off of a cart. There was also unlimited wine and they gave everyone a complementary shot of lemoncello. It was a fantastic meal. I had mille foglie cake, which is a light cream type of pastry cake with powdered sugar on top. It was delicious. Dinner took 3 hours, and then we walked back to our rooms and collapsed in exhaustion.

10/2
Today was a marathon. We woke up early to take pictures of the Duomo square before it was crowded. We grabbed a quick breakfast and then visited the Baptestry of the Duomo quickly, which was beautiful. Then we went to the Palazzo Vecchio to climb the tower and get views of the city. It was cloudy but clear. We have been very lucky with weather so far! We toured through the Palazzio Vechio, enjoying the original home of the Medici family. Then we went to the Duomo museum and saw Michelangelo’s last Pieta and Donatellos Mary Magdelene. Somehow we managed to miss Ghiberti’s original doors, which I was disappointed about. We were meeting Donald for a tour to Santa Croce at 2, so we thought we would try to get into the Duomo for a quick look at 130 when it opened, but the line was far too long. Santa Croce was beautiful. It is the largest Francescian church in the world .The façade was done to match the Duomo. Michelangelo and Galileo were buried there and there is a chapel designed by Bruneleschi out back. Then we walked across the river and went to Boboli Gardens for views of the city, and then to see the outside of the Pitti Palace, the final home of the Medici’s. We were hoping to pop inside because it was free today, but instead we ran into a Renessaince style parade and it was too interesting to miss, so we had to do that instead. We stopped in front of the Palazzio Vecchio and had a quick dinner in a restarant on the square there. We had a delicious appetizer of pears, pecorino and honey. The only downside is that we were on the edge of the patio and during our dinner we had to turn down 8 different flower sellers and 2 beggers that came right up to our table. Its unfortunate that all these flower and toy salespeople are so aggressive and are really ruining the feel of these beautiful squares. We went back to our hotel at an earlier time and called our parents, who were happy for an update.

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10/3
We headed to Pisa this morning. I had been prepared to not like it because lots of people in various forums rated it as skippable compared to other sites and talked about all the commercialized, touristy sellers ruining the ambience. I think because I was prepared for this, it did not bother me as much. There were lots of pushy sellers and the walk to Pisa was lined with trinket stands, but once inside, it was not any worse than any other site. That tower really leans! I thought it was so funny that they fixed the tower in the 90’s but decided not to straighten it, even though they could have, because they thought no one would come to see them anymore. The tower, cathedral and baptistery were all beautiful. The baptistery was designed for its acoustics, so we stayed there for a display of the acoustics that occurs every 30 minutes. Then we visited the cathedral. At the end, we went to the cemetery in the back and enjoyed a peaceful walk. After a quick lunch of pizza, we headed onward to the Cinque Terre. We took the train from Levanto to Monterosso, where there were mini trucks called ape’s to take our bags up the stairs to our hotel. The group was split into two, and we got to stay in Villa Steno up on the hill with little terraces overlooking the town and sea. It is just a beautiful town with quaint homes and little shops all overlooking a rocky shore and the most beautiful, clear, teal water. We took a short walk around town and up the cliff for a view of the town before meeting on the upper terrace of our hotel for some focaccia and wine. Then we all walked down to the other hotel, Hotel Pasquale, where we were treated to a pesto making demonstration by a woman who has lived here for 71 years. We learned that it is important to use a wooden pestle with the mortar, because stone and stone causes little sparks which changes the flavor of the pesto. Then we had a dinner of pesto pasta, local fish, and dessert, all served by the nice family that owns the hotel. It was delicious, even for those of us who don’t really like fish.

10/4
This morning we got up early to start hiking from Montorosso to Vernazza at sunrise. The hike was TOUGH. It was all uphill for the first half. I would say it wasn’t our favorite hike, because it went away from the coast for a long time. Instead we would have rather taken the train to Vernazza and then taken the trail up for views of the town. Vernazza from the trail was just beautiful! We stopped there for second (and third) breakfast. We had gone to the market the day before for some fruit and biscuits to eat on the hike, but it took us more than 2 hours to do the hike, so we were hungry. We got a few pastries to share from a bakery and wandered around town. Very cute town, but very compact, and it got crowded quickly. We decided to take the train to Corniglia instead of taking another hike there. On the way to the train station, we found a little place that sold the most delicious bruschetta with pesto, so we made that our third breakfast. When we got to Corgnilia, we decided to walk up to the town from the train station instead of taking the bus. I do not recommend this – save your energy for a more scenic and enjoyable walk. Corniglia was one our favorite towns because it was quieter. We got some gelato (3 breakfasts and a morning gelato – we are definitely on vacation!). We tried a taste of the basil gelato, which is definitely unique but was not something we wanted a whole cup of. Then we took a hike up in the hills from Corniglia to Manorola. Once again, the first part of the hike was all uphill. It was hot and I was tired and cursing our decision the entire time. But once it leveled out it went through a beautiful, cool foresty area and then went through the terraced vineyards with views of the sea, Corniglia and Manarola, we were so glad we had done it. It was a beautiful hike.

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10/4 (cont).
It was supposed to take 2.5 hours but with all our stops it took close to 4. We were hungry by then, but had the idea to get to Riomaggiore to take the last boat of the day back to Montorosso. So we grabbed some drinks and a focaccia to share at a little shop and headed for the trains. The focaccia was plain, but it was easily the best bread of the trip. It was incredible. At Riomaggore we went straight to buy boat tickets and wait for the boat, hoping for good seats. Our hope was in vain, as the boat was packed. We found a spot to stand up by the window so we could see the towns from the water. It was 20 euro for the two of us and would have been well worth it if we could have sat on top instead of leaning against a wall underneath. As it was, I’m still glad we did it to get a view of the towns from the water. We then went to a little restaurant on the main square of Montorosso and had a cheese plate (ok) and muschroom risotto, which was out of this world. It was served in a ceramic pot that it was cooked in, and you could only order it if you had two people who wanted it. It was easily the best risotto of our trip. We got some gelato and went back to the room to pack up our clean laundry that the hotel did for us for 15 euros (well worth it). We were so tired that we showered and were in bed by 830 and slept soundly all night.
10/5
On our way to Siena this morning we headed to Lucca. It was a cute old town with intact renaissance walls surrounding the city. We saw the cathedral in Lucca and then headed to a pizzeria where we got a slice of pizza and a local crepe type thing made out of chickpeas called Cecina. Then we wandered through the town, had some gelato (notice a theme here?), and walked a bit on the walls. It was perfect, cool weather with bright sunny skies. We stopped at a little ceramic shop for some gifts. When we got to Siena, we dropped off our bags and met on the terrace for welcome drinks and snacks. Then we took a walking tour through town, to the campo, and to the church in the district we would be eating in. We learned that siena is divided into 17 districts that compete in horse races called the Palio each year. Each one is like a little village that has its own church and social club. They all have their own wells where new babies are baptized into the district. They work together to raise money to hire jockeys for the races. They are very intense about these races. 4 days before the race, each district (contrada) is given its horse for the race, and that’s when festivities begin. For those four days, the districts hate their rivals, even having fistfights in the streets. Husbands and wives from different districts may even go back to live with their original families for the 4 days. The horse is brought right into the church and blessed with holy water. The race only lasts a minute (3 laps around the square), but there are parades and celebrations for 4 hours before the race. 50,000 people pack into the square to watch. The winner celebrates for months afterwards. We went into the social hall of this contrada (Forest) where 5 young men cooked us a wonderful dinner. We had appetizers of bruschetta, meat and cheese; pici pasta with tomato sauce, beef stew and potatoes, and a frozen whipped cream sort of dessert with nuts and covered in chocolate. They showed us the video they made of their last win, and it was easy to get into the spirit of the race.

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10/6
We started this morning with a stained glass demonstration. It was so interesting to see the many steps that go into making these ornate stained glass windows. The shop is owned by two brothers who do the glass as well as ceramics. They have a little shop in town that they sell their ceramics at. After that, we went on a tour of the Duomo. We learned about the hospital across the street which has always been larger than the city needs. They used it for the sick and the orphaned and even travelers just passing though that needed a place to stay. Siena was not bombed during WWII because they painted a red cross on the Duomo. The Duomo was just beautiful. The outside façade had multi-colored marble that looked similar to Florence’s. in fact, they were building the churches at the same time. When the citizens of Siena found out that Florence’s was bigger, they decided to expand the church. They built an outer façade and then were never able to complete it due to the black plague that took 60% of the town’s population (from 50,000 to 20,000). The inside is very unique, with horizontal black stripes that go all around the walls and columns. The ceilings are painted and the floors are covered in 56 separate panels of inlaid marble. They are only uncovered for a few weeks a year, and we were lucky enough to see them. We also saw a statue by Michelangelo and Donatello and a chapel designed by Bernini. After the Duomo, we decided to have a long lunch on the square overlooking the tower. I had risotto and rabbit and David had vegetable soup and steak, and we shared a warm chocolate cake. We really enjoyed our meal. We relaxed in the room for a bit and then we wandered through town, taking photos of the medieval streets and people watching. We saw a contrada celebration that decorated an entire street that reminded us of harry potter. We had a slice of pizza and gelato for dinner, and then headed back to our room to relax and read for the night. Everyone in the tour was starting to get sick, so we thought taking it easy was a good idea. Siena was one of our favorite stops because of the relaxed, laid-back atmosphere.

10/7
We visited Assisi this morning. The town was adorable, and the color of the stone buildings was very different than anything else we had seen so far, but the stores were all very touristy. We had some free time to wander though town and get lunch before visiting the basilica. The tour of the basilica was wonderful, although no pictures were allowed. This basilica stuck out as having very unique art work to us. After Assisi, we drove to our hotel in Umbria, the Altarocca Wine Resort. The setting was exactly what you picture when you hear the word “Tuscany,” with rolling green hills covered in vineyards. The drive up to the resort allowed us a wonderful view of Orvieto, which would be our destination the next day. Our rooms were lovely and large, with views of the vineyard. We settled in and then had a tour of the distillery and a wine tasting before dinner in the clubhouse. It was a very low-key, relaxing day.

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10/8
This morning we took a trip to Orvieto. We had a group entry to the Duomo and then the rest of the morning free to wander on our own. Once again, the Duomo was lovely. Some of the group was starting to feel “churched out,” but I thought they were all so magnificent that I could tour one a day and never get tired of it. We saw a wedding party taking photos outside the church, and I can't imagine what it would be like to be married in such a magnificent, historical church. We wandered the town for a while to finish up some souvenir shopping and then had lunch at a little cafeteria and capped the day off with some of the best gelato of the trip, right next to the duomo. We had the rest of the day free to relax at the resort. David and I took a walk down to see some of the last of the grapes of the season in the vineyards. Then it started to rain, so we spent the rest of the afternoon taking a much needed rest in our room. Dinner was an “American style” barbecue with a variety of grilled meats and lots of fresh veggies. Everyone was excited for something different, even though we have all loved pasta so much.

10/9
We headed to Rome first thing this morning! On our way, we had our last Autogrille stop and we said goodbye to Michele, our driver. We had a couple of hours to settle into our room and get lunch before meeting for a subway ride and walk to the Borghese gallery. The hotel in Rome was Hotel Aberdeen, and the accommodations were nice and clean and comfortable and the staff were super helpful, but I don’t think I would stay there again because it felt kind of far from the center of the things we wanted to see. It was great for people who like to use public transit a lot, but we love to be located where we can walk to most things, because we love to experience the city by walking. The Borghese gallery was just stunning. Our guide was wonderful and did his best to help us avoid the crowds. We had 2 hours to soak in the art and it was the perfect amount of time. After that we did a walk with the group through some of the important squares and ending at the Trevi fountain before splitting up for dinner on our own. We ate at a restaurant near our hotel that I remember being fine, but it does not stick out to me.

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10/10
Today was our day to explore ancient Rome. We started with a tour of the Colosseum. While it was amazing to see one of the most easily recognizable landmarks in the world, it was terribly crowded while we were there, which diminished my enjoyment a bit. It was difficult to see what the guide was talking about, and it was difficult to hear her even with the radio system we had. I was glad we saw it, but almost felt relieved when we left. I would like to go back on my own at a less crowded time to see it again. After that, we went to the forum which we loved. It was less crowded, and for me it was easier to imagine what it must have been like 2000 years ago. We finished with the Pantheon, which was incredibly well preserved, although also crowded. After our tour, David and I got sandwiches at a deli in the square the Pantheon is in and sat at the base of the fountain and people watched a bit. Then we got another gelato to sustain us before doing some more wandering. We visited the Victore Emmanuel monument and paid a fee, I believe it was 6 euros, to go to the top for views of the city. I highly recommend this! It gave great views of ancient Rome. Then we went to San Pietro in Vincoli to see Michelangelo’s Moses statue. It was lovely, but unfortunately it was being restored so it was covered in scaffolding. Also, we arrived during the period the church is closed in the afternoon from 1-3pm, so we entered just as it reopened and it was very, very crowded around the statue. I would highly recommend timing this site better than we did! We had time to go back to the hotel to rest before heading out to our group dinner. We ate in the basement of a little restaurant near the Piazza Navona. Our group leader surprised us with musicians who played for us during our meal. They were very entertaining and got everyone involved in singing. We all had so much fun and there was lots of laughter. It was sad to say farewell to everyone, but we appreciated that we had such a great group!

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10/11
The tour was officially over, but we had one more day in Rome! We got up early to do the Pristine Sistine tour with the Walks of Italy. This was a bit expensive, but we thought it well worth it. When we were waiting outside in the lines with all the other people who had paid to get in before the general admission time, I was doubting our decision because it looked like a ton of people! But our guide was wonderful and timed it perfectly. We went to see the Raphael rooms before the Sistine chapel. This was perfect, because we had those rooms completely to ourselves, and it gave a chance for the crowds in the Sistine Chapel to die down before we went there. I have heard horror stories of the Chapel being so crowded that you can’t enjoy it, but we were fortunate because there was plenty of room. I was able to get a bench seat along the side and just sit and gaze at the ceiling for about 20 minutes without being disturbed. It was wonderful. We ended our tour in St. Peters where we got to explore on our own. I felt like I was a bit “toured out” after 17 days of guided tours, but I am still so glad we did the Walks of Italy tour because our guide had perfect timing, knew all the back routes, and was able to quickly show us the highlights of the Vatican museum. That place is so huge, crowded and overwhelming that I don’t think I would want to do it on our own. After it opened for general admission, the crowds were crushing and it was very difficult to enjoy anything. I don’t know if I would do the museum again unless I went in the winter, but I would go to St. Peters again in a heartbeat. Even though we had seen so many amazing cathedrals on our trip, St. Peters was astounding. I’m glad we saw it last, because I think it is almost impossible to top. It is just indescribable. After leaving the Vatican, we walked along the river to Trastevere. I loved this area and wished we had more time to explore it! It was quieter and definitely gives you more of the “old world,” rustic charm feeling. We had lunch there with the cutest waiter of the trip. We visited Santa Maria in Trastevere, which is pretty unassuming from the outside but just stunning on the inside. It was quiet and lovely and we spent some time just sitting and soaking up the beautiful mosaics. After this, we headed back to our room for a brief rest and then went on one last stroll through Rome. We walked past the forum, enjoying the street musicians. We saw the outside of the Victore Emmanuel monument again and visited Trevi fountain one more time before eating at a pizzaria on Piazza Navona overlooking the fountains. It was an absolutely perfect evening to cap off our visit. I had been prepared to be overwhelmed with Rome because of all the warnings I had read about how crowded and busy and crazy its was. I had heard all the warnings about pickpockets and chaos and crazy drivers and was so nervous I wasn’t even sure I would like it. So it ended up being the surprise of the trip. Despite the crowds in the tourist sites, I adored Rome. It is spread out with lots of space, so it didn't feel too crowded. I never saw any pickpockets. It was just unbelievable to walk through all the layers of history on top of each other. Everywhere you went there was something amazing to see, and the culture of the city felt so laid back and cozy to me. I loved every minute of it and can’t wait to plan a trip back! We were lucky to have wonderful weather, so I think when we return I will plan for November or January so we can enjoy the sites with less crowds, even if that means some less than perfect weather. In the morning we headed to London, so I will write that up later as a separate report.

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Tamara,
What a great trip report. My wife and I took the tour in Sept 2015 and just loved it. If anyone is on the fence deciding whether to take this tour or not, I strongly recommend it.

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1926 posts

I love reading trip reports, especially for tours I haven't taken---yet. This one really sounds like a keeper. I love your thoroughness and enthusiasm! Thanks for sharing your fun journey.

Posted by
4572 posts

Tamara, I haven't finished reading your report yet, but I wanted to jump in and share my appreciation of Donald. He was our guide on our Best of Sicily trip last year, and we loved him! Kind, thoughtful, knowledgeable, and funny. We would love to have him as our guide on another Italy tour.

Okay, back to your trip report...

Posted by
600 posts

Thank you everyone, I'm glad you enjoyed it! I love reading trip reports to hold me over in between trips :) Jane - Donald is the best, isn't he? He was just so knowledgeable and organized. He has a great combo of Italian passion and British humor, I thought. I loved getting to know him.

Posted by
4572 posts

Great report! Thank you very much.

As an aside, we have stayed at the Aberdeen twice, once with a RS Best of Rome tour, and once on our own. We love it, and find it close enough to the major sights to walk. It's not right in the center of things, but I think we walked from there to everything except the Vatican. And I do believe we actually walked back to the hotel from the Vatican, but I wouldn't recommend it.

Posted by
600 posts

Jane - I agree that it is close enough to walk, but I guess we did not find it to be a comfortable walk if you wanted to return to your room once or twice per day. We got spoiled by our hotels in the other cities were we were just down the street or just a 5-10 minute walk from some of the major sites, so we could come back to the hotel to rest or change or drop of purchases easily. In Rome we were walking for 20-30 minutes to get to a major site, so when we left our room, we left for the day and did not come back until evening. I loved everything else about the hotel, but would prefer one a bit more central next time - although I am sure that would come with a significant price increase!

Posted by
1918 posts

Tamara,
I went on this tour 10/09 - 10/25 and had a fabulous time. Thanks for your lovely report. I haven't worked up the courage to actually write my own trip report. Maybe your report will encourage me to do it.
We stayed in the Aberdeen Hotel in Rome and I agree it was a location central to many sights. On one afternoon a group of us walked from the Pantheon across the Tiber River trying to locate a restaurant and we gave up when we got lost. Ate at the first place we found and the food was delicious! Never a bad meal in Italy.

Judy B

Posted by
3747 posts

Great trip report! We took this trip several years ago, and this brought back good memories.

After this trip, we loved the experience so much that we returned on subsequent independent trips to Venice two more times, the Dolomite region, the lake region - 2nd time to Stresa, Siena (stayed again at our original RS hotel), and Rome among several places we've been to Italy.

So be ready to have Italy draw you back! : )

Posted by
600 posts

Judy - you absolutely should do a report! I hate that mine was so long and rambley, but I suppose you never know who it might help! I love to read everyone's reports!

Jean - thats the hardest part of traveling for me! I have such a long wish list, and almost every single place I've been calls me back! I am sure I will be back to Italy before too long :)

Posted by
280 posts

Tamara
I loved reading your report. We did this same trip in September of 2013. It was my dream trip because I was a huge Michaelangelo fan. I celebrated my 60th birthday in Florence. When I saw "David" for the first time, I was thrilled. I relived the whole trip through your report. I've enjoyed your scrapbooks in the past. I hope you do one of this trip. I'd love to see your pictures. Oh, and the gelato place right next to the Duomo in Orvieto is "The Best Gelato" in Italy. I had a triple dip, and I took a picture to prove it. Gelato in Italy isn't just a dessert, it's also a meal. We had gelato for lunch many days on that tour. Yum, yum. There is nothing to compare here in the states.

Posted by
600 posts

Janet - I am so glad you enjoyed my report! That gelato place in Orvieto was something else, wasn't it? I miss everything about Italy, but especially the gelato!! I have a few places the stick out for my favorite gelato - Orvieto is tied for one that we got on our stop in Verona, just amazing! And our first gelato in Varenna was special because we had such a lovely view of the lake and the mountains at sunset, and it just felt so quintessentially Italian! I will definitely try to make a scrapbook this year, just because it is fun for me to relive the trip that way. I am glad someone has been getting use out of them! :)