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April 15, 2018 21 Day Best of Europe

Well, I'm still not caught up, but I the rate I'm going I never will be, so I'm going to go ahead and start my trip report. I'm going to have to do it piecemeal, but I will keep all the sections on this thread. (I forgot about doing that on my Leiden report; sorry.)

A few preliminaries: we were the first BOE tour of the year. Our guide was Dimitri Rigas, and Pam is right, he is great. Dimitri is Belgian, of Greek extraction, about 56 years old. He's been a RS guide for many years; he was a bus driver before switching. He is smart, funny, resourceful, and speaks six languages. Our bus driver was Richard, a Belgian who currently lives in the Netherlands. An amazing driver, he is also passionate about his bus, is an snappy dresser, and easily became part of our group.

This group had more people than any tour I've been on - 28. There were 9 couples and 10 singles, although two of the singles were a mother-daughter pair. Two of the singles were men in their 40s; the female singles ranged from late 40s to over 80. The age range of the group was from 45 to 81; two people (not the oldest) had mobility issues, but they knew to modify their activities to fit their abilities.

We did have a grump or two amongst us, and a couple of shoppers managed to sneak in, as well. Obviously a slip-up on the RS screening process! But we all got along just fine, and I know we made some good friends on the tour.

The bus was almost new, a Volvo, and very comfortable. There were, as usual, enough seats on the bus so everyone could have a double seat to him or herself. One problem we had, though: there was something scented, perhaps a cleaning solution?, that several of us reacted to: sneezing, sore throats, sinus. Dimitri asked Richard if he used something in the ventilation system, and he answered "No," which is why I suspect a cleaning product.

The hotels varied in quality, but all were fine. I'll try to note which had air conditioning and elevators, but I'm afraid I didn't always notice. Some people did complain about the size or quality of their rooms, but Stan and I were pleased with ours. A couple of the rooms we were assigned were small, but all were clean, with comfortable beds. The meals were all good, although of course there was a range in quality. Soft drinks were included in all meals; alcoholic beverages were included only in Italy, and at our final group meal in Paris.

I know people will ask about packing, so I'll insert that now. I carried my beloved Appenzell backpack, and a small shoulder bag that we received as a gift when we joined the Sierra Club. It's about half the size of the RS Euro Flight Bag. For clothing I took (including what I wore on the plane) three pair of slacks (one of which fell apart halfway through the trip!); five tops - three long sleeved and two short sleeved; two pair of shoes; three pair of socks, two bras, and 4 panties; one set of silk long underwear; one fairly heavy cardigan; one very light jacket; one windbreaker; one pair of gloves. All that except the windbreaker (and what I was wearing) fit in the Appenzell. It also held some paperwork, our toiletry kit, and one guidebook. Maybe two. Two baggies full of daily supplements. Oh, and comfy clothes: an oversized T-shirt and a pair of flannel pants. And two small bags: a Velocé guide bag I used as my day bag, and a tiny purse I used when I didn't need to carry more than a credit card and some cash.

My shoulder bag held our 3-1-1 bag, grooming supplies (hairbrush, comb, tweezers, nail file, tiny mirror, etc.), OTC medications - aspirin, acetaminophen, allergy and sinus pills. Also my journal, a small pair of binoculars, a compass, phrasebook, all the paperwork I thought I would need, my passport, checkbook, and many little odds and ends - tissues, tiny sewing kit, rubber bands and paper clips, wipes, a collapsible shopping bag...

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Stan also carried two bags. One was a backpack, about 2/3 the size of the Appenzell, and the other a laptop case, minus the laptop (which drove airport security crazy: "Sir, please remove your laptop! Sir...!") He packed three pair of slacks; three long-sleeved shirts; three pocket tees/polo type shirts; two pairs of shoes; socks, undies, a set of long silk underwear; a medium weight jacket; one windbreaker, a pair of gloves; and two caps. He carried his own baggies of supplements, and at least one guidebook. He also packed a Civitá bag that he used as his day bag. He carried a small camera, as well, and a tiny notebook. Seems like he had more stuff but if I remember it later, I'll edit.

We swapped off carrying some of the things, and I sometimes wore one of his long-sleeved shirts as a bus jacket.

Day 1: Haarlem. The tour hotel was the Ambassador City Centre, just off the main square. It did have an elevator, although it was always faster to take the stairs. There was a pleasant lobby with lots of seating, as well as a guest computer (handy for those of us who don't carry electronic devices.)

We met Dimitri and the rest of the group that afternoon; one grump made himself known immediately. After the meeting we all to the Lachende Javaan for a good Indonesian dinner. It was our first chance to socialize, and we enjoyed sharing the meal with some folks from upstate New York. After dinner, our local guide Ruby led us on a tour of the town, and Dimitri took us all to sample Dutch jenevre, which is not gin; it's more like home brew.

Day 2: Amsterdam. Breakfast at the hotel was good, although there was some grumbling about the coffee. The group then headed to the train station, whence we were off to Amsterdam. Dimitri led us on a tram ride followed by a lengthy walking tour which covered Westerkerk, the Anne Frank house (outside only), a good cheese tasting, and serious lessons in tolerance and history. After a relaxing canal cruise, we were free for lunch. Stan and I finally tried eel; it was delicious!

After lunch the group gathered again, and took the tram to the Rijksmuseum. We were split up into two groups. Our museum guide, Robert, was great. We heard that the other group also praised their guide. We then split up again; some people stayed in Amsterdam; Stan and I headed back to Haarlem to take care of some business and find dinner. We had a lovely dinner at "Al Dente Pizza and Pasta;" the lamb was very good, as was the wine. And we got to practice our Italian.

After dinner we headed back to the hotel to pack and get ready for an early start the next day. We soon learned that Dimitri loves early starts.

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Nice start. I want Saturday to be here soon to talk about our trips! Can't wait to see y'all . Miss ya. Boy will be have fun next May on our RS France tour.

Kim

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Thanks for your comments. I'm tied up much of today, but I'll try to squeeze in an installment later. Kim, we'll see you Saturday. Should be a great meeting.

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2499 posts

I too can't wait for your next installment! I feel like I'm joining you for the tour.

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7680 posts

Dimitri and Richard!! The Dream Team! I've had both but not together. I am sure they were an awesome duo as both have big personalitand are high energy. Love your report so far and look forward to reading the rest.

I remembered you were trying to pack really light and you did. Wow, to get all that is the Appenzel! Sorry your pants broke. Someone else had the same experience last summer which concinced me to go with 3 pr pants plus 1 capri if needed.

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Well, our political meeting ran long tonight - I had hoped to be back home early with the computer, my journal, and a glass of wine :-) in front of me so I could write another installment or two; I think I can squeeze one in.

One thing raised by a travel friend in an email today: the weight of our bags. My full Appenzell weighed about 11 pounds. I didn't weigh my shoulder bag, but I'm going to guess it was about 3 pounds. Stan's backpack was just under 10 pounds, but his "personal item" came in about 5. On the way home, my back pack was considerably heavier. Stan carried all the gifts - which fit neatly into his laptop case - so I had at least half his clothes and all the guidebooks and phrasebook. I didn't think to weigh it, but I certainly felt the extra weight by the time we got home that night.

Day 3: Keukenhof and Bacharach. After breakfast at the hotel, we set out to find our bus and meet driver Richard. Richard is delightful; he's younger than the drivers we've had before, and is definitely fashion-forward! Introductions having been made, we set off for the Keukenhof Gardens, near Haarlem.

I'm liable to ruffle a few feathers here, but we didn't love Keukenhof. It was very impressive - an untold number of thousands of flowers in bloom, and an array of themed pavilions. It was very popular; although we got there fairly early in the day, it wasn't long before the crowds were overwhelming. We spent several hours there, during which time Stan and I had a snack in one of the several cafés. We opted for a sandwich of raw beef sausage; definitely a first for us! It wasn't bad. I think we had a beer to go with it, but I'm afraid I didn't note that. Our background is social anthropology and ethnology, and we would have preferred visiting the open air museum at Arnhem, which the tour visits later in the year, when the main tulip season is over. I'm not saying we didn't appreciate Keukenhof; we just didn't enjoy it as much as most people seemed to.

After Keukenhof we were back on the road, headed to Bacharach, Germany. The bus was very comfortable, and we enjoyed the chance to start to get to know some of our companions. We stopped twice along the way, per EU rules for bus drivers. One stay was long enough for lunch; Stan and I enjoyed a not bad pizza with cheese and shrimp at La Place, a good regional chain.

Our hotel in Bacharach was Hotel am Markt. Our room was nice, big and airy. The tour provided dinner at the hotel. It was good: broccoli soup, roasted potatoes, steamed mixed vegetables, and roast veal with two sauces. Desert was mango mousse with raspberry sauce. I had fresh strawberries instead.

After dinner, we had "buddy introductions," which was more fun than it sounds. Each of us had to introduce his or her "buddy" to the group. Dimitri made it more interesting by allowing us to lie; he suggested one lie for every two true statements. We were supposed to guess which statements were true. Usually we could, but some folks evidently live way more interesting lives than I do!

For folks who haven't been on a RS tour, the buddy system is truly a thing of genius. At our very first get-together, each person is to select a buddy. This doesn't mean you have to be friends, and you certainly don't have to pal around together. In fact, it's better if you don't get close. The point of the buddy system is to keep track of who's there and who isn't. At relevant times, like when the bus is ready to leave, or we just got off a train, someone (usually the guide) will call "Buddy check!" You're supposed to make "meaningful eye contact" with your buddy. That's it. The guide will say "Everyone here?" Yep. And nobody has to count noses or try to decide who is missing if the number of noses is incorrect.

Buddy introductions are a way to break the ice, and a way to help us begin to learn everyone's name. And of course, learn a bit about our fellow travelers.

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Day 4: Bacharach, Rheinfels Castle, and a wine tasting. We had a nice breakfast at the hotel, then gathered to meet our local guide, Thomas. Thomas is a local historian and booster, and gave us a great tour of Bacharach. We learned about the history of the town, the social structure, the economy, and experiences of the locals during World War II. His parents were children during the war, and had touching stories to tell. Thomas even took us up into one of the local vineyards, for wonderful scenic views, and more information about the economy of the region. A side note: we had taken this same tour a number of years ago, and the walking tour was led by the well-known (to Rick Steves buffs) Herr Jung. On that tour, Thomas tagged along, learning the ropes of guiding. I must say that not only did he learn from Herr Jung, he surpassed him in the breadth and depth of the information he passed along. A great experience.

After the tour, we boarded the bus, off for a day trip to nearby St. Goar, home of Rheinfels Castle. We first visited a stein shop, to learn a bit about the art and history of making steins. We were on our own for lunch in this small village, then met up to hike up - and I do mean up! - to the castle. There is a shuttle available, and several of our group opted to take it. For the rest of the tour, whenever Dimitri wanted to assure us a climb was not too strenuous, he would say "It's not as bad as St Goar."

The castle was worth the climb. We had a wonderful local guide, Alvin, who made the castle come alive. We crawled, climbed, and marveled. Again, I must say that Alvin was much better than the guide Stan and I had on our earlier tour. On that one, the guide was a bored student who just went through the motions. Alvin was great.

We headed back down to town, where the group gathered to catch a boat back to Bacharach. This was another chance to interact leisurely with our tour mates. Many of us sat on the upper deck, enjoying a glass of wine or beer, chatting with folks from the tour. It was very relaxing, a nice follow-up to our fairly strenuous day.

On arrival in Bacharach, Dimitri had us all gather in a field before returning to the hotel. Uh-oh! It's the dreaded name game! Yes, another RS tradition, hated by many. We gather in a circle, and repeat people's names. Dimitri says "My name is Dimitri." The next person says "That is Dimitri, my name is Joe." Next: "That's Dimitri, that's Joe, my name is Sue." And on around the circle. As much as people hate it, it works, and it only takes about 10 minutes. What people finally realize it that it's not a competition; as the list of names gets longer, folks start helping whoever is on the spot. So it's also a sneaky bonding experience.

Back to the hotel for a free evening. However... Dimitri had arranged an optional visit to a nearby wine bar that had tastings. Each table had 4 or 5 people who shared a flight of 10 wines. Evidently we were supposed to rate them and compare our scores to those of the other tables, but our group missed that. We just enjoyed the wine! After the wine bonanza, we all headed off for dinner. Stan and I ate at a lovely restaurant near the main gate. Stan had schnitzel and I had some very good plaice. Unfortunately, after the wine tasting and the wine I had at dinner, my notes for the day are pretty much indecipherable, so I don't have more details. If I find the receipt, I'll edit to add the name of the restaurant.

Back to the hotel for shower and sleep; it's been a wonderful day. And another early start tomorrow.

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Day 5: Rothenburg ... and cash! Breakfast at the hotel was good, but we were rushed to make an early start. We had a pleasant bus ride to medieval Rothenburg, still in Germany. We checked into Hotel Gerberhaus; there was a lovely courtyard and garden for the guests, and Stan and I enjoyed our room, which overlooked the courtyard. As soon as we had checked in, Dimitri led us on a quick survey tour of the town, pointing out the main points of interest. We were then free for the rest of the day, although it was recommended we meet up again at dusk for the Night Watchman tour. Stan and I wandered around and stopped for lunch at a tiny butcher shop/deli, where we shared a wonderful frankische bratwurst sandwich. Then we headed over to Jakobskirche to see the amazing carved altarpiece.

After a futile attempt to get money from an ATM, we decided to walk the medieval wall. It's a pleasant and easy activity, with lots of viewpoints over the surrounding valley. We walked almost all the way around, getting down to explore the old castle garden. We headed back to the main square to find dinner, and we found a dandy. We ate at the RatsStube, across from the town hall. The food was great, and the service and ambiance were pleasant. Stan had great venison goulash, and I had leberknödeln (liver dumplings) with sauerkraut. I had taken a pledge to try as many new foods as possible, and since I had never had liver dumplings, I couldn't pass up the opportunity! They were good, but not something I'd go out of my way to try again. The prices were very reasonable, as well. Our two huge mains, at least two glasses of wine, a bottle of fizzy water, and coffee totaled €40.

After we ate, we waddled back to the hotel, to join our friends in the courtyard. Someone asked me if we had managed to get some cash... I haven't brought this up yet, but we had more than our share of credit and debit card problems on this tour. I reported in another thread how DH had lost his wallet in Heathrow - containing his debit card and credit cards, as well as half our emergency cash. We were able to get the cards canceled once we arrived at our Haarlem hotel, but that left us with just one credit card and one debit card. I used the debit card the next day to get some euros, but after that it never worked again. Yikes!

I had tried calling my bank from Bacharach, and was assured everything was fine; I should just try again. Well, there was no ATM in Bacharach, so I had to wait until the next day to try twice in St Goar; again, no luck. I already mentioned that my attempt in Rothenburg earlier that day was futile, as well. So I tried calling my bank again, and the clerk tried some magic. She and her supervisor evidently had to tweak my order, lying to the software about where I was. Evidently, the list of countries I had supplied before we left home did not satisfy the software the bank was using. Wait 15 minutes and try again, I was told.

Since it was almost time for the Night Watchman tour, Stan and I headed back to the center. I gamely slipped into the vestibule of the bank, and... success! Euros! Whew! We were getting short; short enough that I put our dinner on a credit card so we could have a nice meal.

I must say that our fellow tour members leapt in to help. We had people offer to lend us money, or to let us use their debit cards, or to change dollars for us. And two people generously let me use their phones to call our hometown bank. This generosity and kindness was repeated often during the tour. Another person had debit card problems; hers wouldn't work at all. Other members got euros for her. When many of us started having allergy symptoms on the bus, tissues, cough drops, pain relievers appeared out of nowhere. What a nice group of people!

Oh, yes, we did go to the Night Watchman tour, and it is well worth the hour it takes. It's both entertaining and informative; a "must do".

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Day 6: Dachau, Wiesekirche, and Reutte. Breakfast at our Rothenburg hotel was great, the best yet. Lots of fruit and cheese. We loaded up the bus, and headed off toward Reutte, Austria. But Dimitri had a change of plans: he told Richard to head for Munich first. On the way, we had a scheduled stop at Dachau. Rick Steves Europe makes it a point to include concentration camps, military battlefields, or other sobering, thought provoking sights on as many tours as possible. Dachau was not an extermination camp, like Auschwitz; it was mostly a true concentration camp, holding prisoners and people considered to be something other than the Aryan ideal: Jews, Roma (Gypsies,) homosexuals, and political prisoners.

We had an excellent guide, Erik. He was no-nonsense, matter-of-fact, which made the horrors that much worse. The tour was especially good (if that's the word) for folks who had never been to a concentration camp, or who had little knowledge of the history of that time.

After Dachau, we continued on to Munich. We were let off at a big market square in the middle of town. There had to have been hundreds of vendors, selling mostly food. A great lunch stop. We all scattered to find our own lunches and souvenirs. Stan and I detoured to visit the nearby Holy Spirit Church, a rebuilt rococo example. We thought it was old, but then we found the display of the bombing damage during World War II; it had been almost totally destroyed.

After admiring the rococo interior, we headed back to the market to find lunch. Stan had good Polish sausage; I had pig's knuckle, something I hadn't had since we lived in Poland many years ago. We both had local beers, as well.

Then on to Reutte, just over the border in Austria. We stayed at the Hotel Ernburg, which was quite nice. We won the room lottery again: our room was large, had a balcony, and enough chairs for the two of us and a guest or two. The group had dinner at the hotel, and it was good. There was an amazing salad bar, with plenty of salad items and appetizers from which to choose. The main courses were also fine; Stan had very good goulash; I had the salmon and trout plate. Coffee and wine were both good, but were not included in the provided meal. We had to pay extra for them.

The hotel had nice outdoor seating, and a comfortable bar, as well. After-dinner entertainment was provided that first evening: Frank and Gary, Tyrolean musicians. They were very good, and kept us laughing, clapping, and singing for some time.

Then we headed back to our room for some quiet time. Even though we're here for two nights, we have an early start tomorrow. Evidently Dimitri had a full day planned for us.

Edit to add: I just realized, while reviewing my notes, that I had included an excursion in this day's activities (visit to Wieskirche) that didn't actually happen until the next day. So if you've already read this section, you're liable to have déjá vu when you read the next installment.

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Day 7: A hike, Neuschwanstein, Wieskirche, and more. We were up early, with a good breakfast in the hotel. Then most of the group headed off for a hike, about 5 miles, more or less, from the trailhead to Hohenschwangau. It was lovely. The terrain varied from very easy, with asphalt paths, to moderately challenging with narrow dirt paths booby-trapped with tree roots. The scenery was breathtaking, and we all had a wonderful time. (Well, most of us.) Two of our group had opted to take the bus and meet us at Hohenschwangau, and one took the hike, but knew she wouldn't be able to keep up. So she told Dimitri she would skip the sightseeing at the castles, and just enjoy the hike. And she did. She arrived about an hour after the rest of us. We had fun leaving trail markers for her. Dimitri had run ahead of us to get our Neuschwanstein tickets, and told us "Just follow the path. You can't go wrong." Ummm, yeah, right. There were several decision points that weren't obvious, so we left our comrade trail signs, using branches and rocks. She said later she got a big kick out of our woodsman attempts, but appreciated our thinking of her.

When we (all but one) had arrived at Hohenschwangau, we took a shuttle up to Neuschwanstein. This is new; when Stan and I did this tour in 2011, we walked up that hill. That has been my benchmark for tough climbs for the last 7 years, and I actually trained for it this time. I was mildly disappointed that we didn't make the climb, but I got over it. :-)

Neuschwanstein was okay. I know people call it a "fake castle," but it isn't. It's not very old, but it is a real castle. And the interior is more interesting than I remembered. And evidently historians are taking a fresh look at Ludwig's relationship with Richard Wagner, and at his (Ludwig's) mysterious death.

Next we all met near the lake shore to have a picnic lunch that Dimitri and Richard had assembled for us. Good sandwiches, fruit, chips, beer, and water. And we were delighted - and relieved - to see our hardy solo hiker had managed to complete the hike and rejoin the group. We had been worried about her, although she was confident she would be fine. And of course, she was.

After lunch it was off to the luge track. This is another activity that is really more fun than you would think. I'm not sure how to describe it; you sit in a metal pod and are pulled up to the top of a windy track. You can control your luge to some extent on the descent, going as fast or as slow as you want. The problem with going slowly is the folks behind you who quickly catch up and have to avoid running into you. I went too slowly my first run, but I wasn't using the joystick properly. We only had one person fall out this time; someone said he was trying to take a selfie as he hurtled down the hill! He survived with just a road rash, luckily.

Back to the bus, with one more detour to Wiesekirche, the epitome of rococo churches. It has become a major tourist destination, with many souvenir shops and eateries surrounding the church. I'm not sure it's worth the drive, but it is certainly different from most churches you'll be likely to see. And funnily enough, Stan and I both remember it as being tiny, a wee cake frosting chapel, but it's actually rather large.

Then finally back to the hotel, with time to rest or meet friends at the bar before dinner. Tour mate Jason and I had an early dinner of wild garlic soup and an enormous, elaborate salad. Then he and I were off to a local church for the vigil Mass. After Mass, we explored a beautiful, touching cemetery in the church yard.

The rest of the group had a more elaborate dinner, but my informant forgot to note what they had. Jason and I got back just as folks were heading up to their rooms for the night, although as our balcony overlooked the bar terrace, I can assure you that a goodly number of our group partied on into the night.

A good day, but long.

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Day 8: Italy! Up early, as usual :-( After breakfast, it was time to load up the bus and head off toward Venice. This was a very long bus day, at least 7 hours on the bus. The scenery was wondeful, of course, and the rest stops were welcome. We had lunch in the Tyrolean part of Italy. Good sandwiches and salads. Then back on the bus for a few more hours. Finally, we arrived in Venice! Our hotel was the Serenissima, in easy walking distance of, well, everything! Our room was fine, but a little stuffy. The temperatures were running about 20 degrees F above normal, and some people were a bit disgruntled that the air conditioning in the hotel was not turned on. We just opened our windows, and it was fine. We did close them when we left for the day.

As soon as we had settled in, Dimitri took us out for a quick orientation walk, showing us how to get around and how to find our way to the major sights. Then we were off to the restaurant Anonimo Veneziano, where we had a nice - and very large - dinner. There were two salads, seafood pasta, a mixed seafood plate, then a generous serving of squid ink pasta. And since we were in Italy, it was vino incluso!

After dinner, we all walked for a while, then most of the group took advantage of an optional gondola ride that Dimitri had arranged. Several people, including me and Stan, passed. Instead, we just walked around some more, drinking in Venice after dark. Tour friends Steve and Mahlona joined us for a stroll through St Mark's Square. Stan decided to stay there for a while; the rest of us headed back to the hotel. Stan enjoyed the music on the square, and later joined some of our tour mates who had returned from the gondola ride.

I went back to the hotel for peace and quiet, and did a load of sink laundry. I also opened the windows wide to air out the room. A lovely day.

Day 9: Venice. After breakfast at the hotel, the group met our local guide Elisabetta, who spent most of the morning explaining Venetian history and architecture to us. Very well done. She also took us to a mask maker, and we watched him make a simple mask as Elisabetta explained what was happening. (We were offered discounts at his retail outlet, but there was no pressure to buy. I don't even know if anyone in our group bought a mask.)

The tour ended at St Mark's Basilica, and this time (unlike our previous BOE tour) our tour included entry into the impressive museum upstairs.

After the tour, some of our group went to an optional glass blowing demonstration; Stan and I and some others opted out. He and I ran some errands, and found a good lunch at a tiny Turkish hole in the wall. We had a good kebab and good pizza, which we ate sitting on the side of the Grand Canal.

Later, Stan and I went to Campo San Giacomo to meet Alessandro for his Offbeat Venice tour. It started late, since we had to wait about 15 minutes for the other folks (not from our group) who had signed up for the tour. It was fairly interesting, and did take us to parts of Venice, back streets, that we had never seen before. Then we stayed on the join his Cicchetti tour, which involved visiting three tiny bars, some tapas-style snacks (cicchetti), and lots of wine. When Alessandro found out that 3 couples on the tour were celebrating anniversaries, and another couple were newlyweds, he kept bringing out prosecco. I don't know how we kept from falling into a canal.

Stan wanted to go back to Piazza San Marco, so we headed back there and picked a café at random. Coffee. We drank coffee. And enjoyed the music and the ambiance. Venice truly is magical at night. Finally, we sauntered dreamily back to our hotel, opened the windows wide, and enjoyed our last night in Venice.

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Jane - so enjoying your trip report! I have wondered about retaking a tour and it is good to hear your memories/comparisons. Can’t wait to read more.

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11154 posts

Wonderful report - thanks for taking the time to post it!

If it's any consolation or comfort, my reaction to Keukenhof EXACTLY matches yours. I know many people turn somersaults over it, but for me, it's a "one and done" experience.

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Thanks for the encouragement. Once more, into the fray:

Day 10: Florence! After an early breakfast, we were off to Florence, my favorite city in the world. (So far.) We had lunch on the way at a rest stop, then headed straight for Florence. We stayed at the Hotel Palazzo dal Borgo, not too far from the train station. It's not as convenient to the Duomo as the previous hotel had been, but it's still in easy walking distance. We found out later that the Accademia Hotel, where this tour usually stayed, has been sold. The dal Borgo was very nice, and just quirky enough to become a Rick Steves classic. It evidently is a repurposed palazzo, with oddly shaped rooms, hidden staircases, and the occasional fresco remnant peeking out. There is also a lovely inner courtyard, where we met for drinks as soon as we had checked in. Our room was so nice we hoped nobody would come by to visit. Huge, with a separate sitting area, and big windows that opened onto a surprisingly busy street. There was an elevator, but Stan and I didn't use it, so I can't report on the size.

Dimitri gathered us all together for the short walk into the center of town, making sure we knew how to get back. Then we went to the Accademia for the star of Italian art, Michaelangelo's David. If you haven't seen it, go. It's worth the price of the plane ticket. No matter how many pictures you have seen of it, or how many reproductions, go. There are no words to describe it. Just go.

We had some free time there, which gave us a chance to see other Michaelangelo sculptures (the Prisoners, very powerful) and other exhibits. then we set off for a group dinner at Giglia Rossa, where dinner was a production. We had very good gnocchi and ravioli, and a flaming beef roast that was pretty good, as well. Then a massive dessert cart was unveiled, with a range of cakes, tarts, pastries, and, luckily for me, fresh fruit. (I don't eat sweets, although Stan is an aficianado. I think he had some decadent chocolate creation.) Oh, wine and digestivos were included, as well.

After that huge dinner, we were all glad to head back to the hotel. It was quite late by now, since Italian dinners, as is true in much of Europe, are not to be rushed.

Day 11: More Florence. Breakfast was served in the courtyard, and was good. We had those wonderful Florentine rolls, and a good selection of meats and cheeses. Fruit and eggs were also available.

A special treat today: a free morning! Stan and I had already made plans to go to Museo San Marco for the Fra Angelico frescoes, and friends Steve and Mahlona asked to tag along. After Fra Angelico, we headed to the Mercato Centrale for lunch. The upstairs food court is new since the last time Stan and I were in Florence, and there was plenty from which to choose. Stan had a good mixed meat skewer, and I had an amazing dish: a chicken thigh stuffed with artichoke hearts and truffles. Actually, I think they just waved a truffle over it at some point, but it was still delicious. We also fried potatoes and a good salad with grilled tomatoes. And wine. Of course.

After lunch, we were off to the Duomo museum - Museo dell' Opera del Duomo. I remembered having enjoyed it years ago, but now it has been totally redone, and is truly amazing. Some of the original statues and doors from the Duomo and Baptistry are there, as well as many other artworks, including Donatello's breathtaking Mary Magdalene. There's even a recreation of the facade of the original Duomo. Go.

Our schedule got skewed here; Stan got separated from the rest of our small group, and when it came time to leave to meet the rest of the tour at the Uffizi, we couldn't find him. After running up and down the stairs several times, I sent Steve and Mahlona on to the Uffizi, and I waited for Stan. Well, we just missed each other, so we also missed the Uffizi. But I headed off to the Baptistry, included in the Museo ticket.

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Stan and I finally managed to find each other again, in time to join the group for a happy hour at the hotel. Everyone contributed, and there was an amazing amount of food. Mostly cheeses and salamis, but also chips, olives, and even pizza. We contributed some wonderful sourdough bread we had bought at the Mercato Centrale. And about half the people showed up with wine. Amazingly enough, all the food was eaten; and I don't know what happened to all that wine ;-)

There was enough food that we didn't feel the need to go find dinner, so after the group broke up Stan and I went for a walk. We ended up crossing to river to Oltrarno, the grittier side of Florence. We just wandered around, enjoying the ambiance, and honest to God, happened upon a Communist rally. So of course Stan bought a gelato and we watched the fun for a while. But it was late, the crowd was mostly very young, very loud, and drinking rather heavily, so we headed back to the hotel for a quiet night.

Day 12: Roma! Fair warning, this day was brutal. We started, of course, with breakfast at the hotel, then off to Rome. Because of EU rules mandating how many days in a given time period a bus driver can drive, we had a substitute bus and driver. The driver was Mirco, and his Mercedes bus was even nicer than Richard's Volvo. After a rest stop on the way, and a scenic (of course; this is Italy!) drive, we landed in Rome. Our hotel was the Sonya, evidently a Rick Steves favorite. It was fine, nothing special, but the rooms were clean and simple, and there was an elevator. We were free for lunch; Stan and I and a couple other friends found excellent pizza just up the street at the Bar Washington. After lunch, Dimitri walked us all up to the Metro stop, and gave us a quick Metro lesson. We then headed straight to the Vatican. Our first stop there was the Vatican Museum with local guide Alessandra. She was pretty good, better than the other guide Stan and I had had there, but the museum was packed and we were rushed through. She did take some of us who were interested in the Rafael rooms aside, and we had some extra time there. Next stop: the Sistine Chapel, another sight that truly must be viewed in person to properly appreciate. Michaelangelo's ceiling is legendary, and his huge Last Judgment behind the altar is overwhelming. The frescoes on the side panels, many by other prominent artists of the time, are well worth studying, but it's hard to see them in the press of wall to wall people. And finally, we entered St Peter's Basilica, the grandest church in Christendom. Again, words fail. You cannot imagine the scope of this building. The artwork is wonderful - all statues and mosaics, by the way; no paintings. The scale is gargantuan. And the crowds are exhausting.

We had a bit of free time in St Peter's, and then joined the group for our return to central Rome. We took the bus to Campo dei Fiori, then walked to Piazza Navona and the Rotunda Square, where the Pantheon is located. Here we split up to find dinner on our own. Stan and I and a couple of friends ended up at a trattoria just off the square - sorry; I don't remember the name. Stan's spinach ravioli was very good; my pasta cacio e pepe was not bad; the house wine was seriously overpriced. Yes, I should have asked the price before we ordered (it wasn't listed on the menu) but I'm so used to house wines in Italy being good and affordable, I didn't ask.

After dinner, we rejoined the group for Rick's "Floodlit Walk" of Rome. We visited the Trevi Fountain and Quirinale Palace, then headed back to our nearby hotel. We were all ready for showers and bed. We also did a sinkful of laundry, as well.

This was a very long day; too full, in my opinion. We were exhausted, and the number of sights we visited cause near sensory overload. But it's Rome, after all!

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Day 13: Ancient Rome and the Etruscans. At breakfast this morning, I sat with Dimitri and respectfully suggested that the trip to the Vatican Museum was pretty much a waste of time, given the crowds and the short amount of time we had there. He actually agreed, but the problem is the only way to visit the Sistine Chapel is by going through the Vatican Museum. Some of you folks who hang out on this forum will remember the hell that was raised last year (I think, or the year before) when some of the RS tours that went to Rome didn't offer the Sistine Chapel. And sales for these tours fell. So for now, we're stuck with the arrangement. I suspect RSE has looked into some of the very early or very late tours that beat the crowds. Hmmm.

Breakfast was good, by the way. Good rolls, and what may be the best mortadella I've ever had. I'm afraid I made several trips back to the buffet line for more.

After breakfast, Dimitri led us on a neighborhood walk, ending up at San Pietro in Vincola, (St Peter in Chains,) a church known for Michaelangelo's famed statue of Moses, and for the chains that are said to be those that held St Peter when he was a prisoner in Rome. From there we headed to the Colosseum, where we met our local guide for the day, Ilaria. She was very good, soft-spoken but thorough. I suspect, from her presentation style, that she has studied at the feet of the great Francesca Caruso, Rome guide extraordinaire.

We were able to enter the Colosseum through the ground level "gladiators' entrance," which gave us a whole new perspective. Very nice. From the Colosseum we went to the Forum, where again Ilaria gave us great historical and social context. Following that, we walked to the Pantheon, one of Stan's favorite places in the world. Something new this year: an entry fee is charged. Bummer. It was nice to be able to just pop in to marvel at the building, the architecture, the incredible dome, the graves of famous Romans, and the art. Sigh. It's still wonderful, of course.

After the Pantheon, we were free for the rest of the day. Stan and I had plans to visit the Etruscan Museum at Villa Giulia in the Borghese Gardens. Again, some friends asked to tag along, a request I believe they came to regret. I heard the phrase "death march" used...

The Borghese Gardens are not far from central Rome, a fairly easy walk, but Villa Giulia is way on the north end of the Gardens, and was much harder to find than we had expected. When we finally found a signpost for it, it pointed us the wrong way! Our friend's GPS wasn't much help, either; it kept insisting we had arrived. Uh, no. But we did finally find it, and it was worth the long walk. We have been absolutely enchanted by every Etruscan museum or exhibit we've ever seen, and this one was one of the best. Well worth the trip, and highly recommended. (I'm skipping some of the more colorful parts of the day, for example when Stan managed to separate himself from the group again - he did find us right after we found the museum - and the part where Mahlona and I were locked out of the building when we detoured to visit the toilets in the courtyard. All part of the fun!)

We tried to take a tram back to the center, but after waiting at the tram stop for 30 minutes, we gave up and walked. It was much closer than we thought, luckily. We found the Spanish Steps, new to our friends, and then headed down toward Via Veneto, where I had a commission from a Tulsa friend - she needed a pin from the Hard Rock Café. Done!

We took the Metro back to our own neighborhood, where we had an excellent dinner at the Washington Bar. Stan had grilled prawns, I had house-made manicotti with spinach and ricotta. Good house wine as well. Steve and Mahlona had soup and pizza, and Stan and Mahlona had excellent gelato.

Back to the hotel for showers and bed. Mahlona's fitbit said 10 miles today. And 10 miles yesterday. Jeepers.

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Day 14: Orvieto and Cinque Terre. Before we leave Rome, a personal observation. The first time we came to Rome, in 2010 for the RS Best of Rome tour, I didn't like it. I liked the sights just fine, liked the hotel, loved our guide (Cecilia Bottai.) I just didn't like Rome. It was too big, too noisy, too frenetic. And I always got lost. The next time we visited Rome, on our 2011 Best of Europe, I was more accepting. Maybe Rome isn't so bad... We were learning our way around, but I still got lost. A few years ago, 2015, I think, Stan and I spent several days in Rome after a Sicily tour, and that time I truly enjoyed it. And this time? Well, Rome is moving up the list, and rapidly becoming one of my favorite destinations. Maybe it's an acquired taste? It helps that my Italian is much better now, too, so I'm more comfortable here. And I didn't get lost once! (Stan did, but that doesn't count. Besides, he said everyone else was lost, not him)

Back to the tour. Up early to pack - we were too tired last night. Breakfast, then up the street to meet Richard (hooray!) and head north. This is the day when the schedule includes "a stop at your guide's favorite hill town." Well, Dimitri's favorite hill town is Orvieto. The timing was such that we were there at lunchtime. Dimitri kindly provided porchetta sandwiches for anyone who wanted one. And they were very good, indeed. Porchetta is roast suckling pig, usually chopped or shredded and served on good crusty rolls. Sometimes there's butter or a dressing (mayonnaise, perhaps) of some kind; other times it's just meat and bread. These were buttered, I think, and very good. Excellent with beer, but wine will do in a pinch. :-)

We had plenty of time to explore the town and visit the magnificent Duomo with its wonderful frescoes. The town is big enough to have anything you might want, but small enough to be cozy. A good choice for a stop. And a place to come back to with more time to spend.

After Orvieto, it was off to Cinque Terre. We actually got off the bus in Levanto, a small town north of the CT, and took the train from there back to town #5, Monterosso al Mare. Dimitri gave us a lesson in riding the train, knowing many of us would be using the train on our free day. In Monterosso we stayed at Hotel Punta Mesco, a short walk from the beach. It's very nice; not fancy but clean and comfortable, and a number of the rooms have small patios. Ours didn't, this time, but our room was just fine. After unpacking, we joined the group for a sumptuous dinner at the Belvedere restaurant. Our main course consisted of "amfora," a huge tureen filled with a variety of seafood, including prawns, monkfish, mussels, and octopus. We also had a first course pasta, a local specialty served with pesto, and, of course, plenty of wine.

This had been another long bus day, and people were tired. Some folks walked along the beach for a while, and a few others wandered into the village proper. The rest of us ambled back to the hotel for an early evening. I did pop into the old town to check out the church, which was very near the restaurant. I wanted to find out when Masses were scheduled for that weekend, but couldn't find a notice. When I told the other practicing Catholic in the group, he took it in stride: "Well, God knows we tried!" he said.

Tomorrow we're free all day, a "vacation from our vacation." We're thinking about skipping the CT itself, and taking the ferry to Porto Venere for the day. We'll see what the day brings.

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Great report! I am reliving the BOE tour we did two years ago in the spring. It’s great to hear that even though highlights are the same, the tours vary. We were among the groups that skipped the Vatican. It was a disappointment to me, as I feel it is truly something that is best in Europe (crowds aside). Well over half of our group went anyway either prebooking for an evening or on our free afternoon. It was crowded, but I think going with a guide would have been preferable. As we were not on a tour, we had to pretend we were with another group to use the back door into St Peter’s. (Our whisper softs were a different color and we weren’t Asian so we got a few looks, but not stopped.). The museum that was substituted was nice, but not a headliner if this was your first trip to Rome.
Keep up the excellent report.

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Day 15: Cinque Terre. After a good breakfast at the hotel (for some reason I noted in my log that the boiled eggs were good) we headed out for the day. Although we had thought about skipping the CT (we'd been here before) and taking the ferry to Porto Venere for the day, we changed our minds. Some friends asked to join us for the day, and the trip we had outlined would have been longer, more complicated, and more expensive, so we decided to save it for another time when we were on our own.

We all bought day passes for the train (which also give you access to the trails, as well as free use of train station restroom) and boarded a train for Riomaggiore, the village furthest south. The train was quick and easy, and since it was fairly early in the day, it wasn't crowded. In Riomaggiore we just wandered around a while, climbed up to a viewpoint to survey the sea, and then headed back to the train station. By now the crowds were growing, and the train was packed. We jumped off at the next town, Manarola. Manarola was also crowded; after a short stint of sightseeing we decided on lunch at Ristorante di Aristide, near the train station. It was pretty good. Stan had gnocchetti al bolognese, and I had trofie al ligure, which meant small handmade pasta twists with a sauce of pesto, potatoes, and green beans. It was delicious. And less expensive than we feared; the Aristide is a popular tourist destination, but the food and service were great.

Most of our party was ready to take a break, so we shoehorned ourselves onto a train to Monterosso. I haven't been on a train or tram that crowded since we lived in Poland. One of our group is quite short, so we had to keep an eye on her in the crush. We all split up in Monterosso. Stan went to take a nap, our friends took off as well, and I went into the older part of Monterosso. Monterosso has two sections, connected by a tunnel. The train station and our hotel were in the newer part; most sights and shopping are in the older section.

I just wandered around for the rest of the afternoon, noting the shops and restaurants. We did need a couple of things (corkscrew again; we had misplaced ours) so I popped into a tiny shop where most of the clientele were local. It was also interesting to me, and surprising, that this village was not nearly as crowded as the others we had visited. We heard later that Vernazza, which we didn't visit, was even worse than Manarola. (Shudder!) I should mention that not only was this a holiday weekend in Italy, the weather was spectacular, in the 80s, just perfect for a day at the beach. I suspect that increased the temporarily local population.

Later that afternoon, most of our tour met on the beach for a happy hour. This one was fully catered, with plenty of snacks, and a selection of beverages. Most people were content to just sit and nurse a drink, since folks are beginning to flag. We shared stories of our day; several people had attempted the hike connecting villages, some had climbed up to the top of the mountain our own village was situated on. Nobody just kicked back, as far as I could tell.

When the group broke up, Stan and I went into the old town looking for dinner. We were trying to find a place that sold paper cones filled with fried fish, but couldn't. Another couple from our tour were also in search of those goodies; evidently we would have had to go to Vernazza to find them, and none of us was up to that. We did find a tiny little place on a back street that we enjoyed. We ordered fried calamari and a fried fish platter, so got our monthly allowance of grease that way. I'll try to find the name of the place; it's not in my notes. But it was very nice, and I think we were the only non-Italians there.

Back to the hotel, with Stan stopping for gelato on the beach on the way. We're leaving tomorrow, so we need some time for quiet, rest, showers, and packing. Another very full day!

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I am really enjoying your trip report. We have been going to Europe for the last 5 years, always doing our own itinerary planning, reservations, etc. I have always wondered what a Rick Steves tour is like and you truly bring it to life!

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When I took the 17 Day Best of Italy Tour in 2015, we were provided train passes and park passes for free as part of our tour. It appears that you had to pay for them. I wonder if this is a change? I would be curious if any other RS Tours had to pay for the trains while staying in the CT.

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Yosemite, I think it varies with the tour. We've been to the CT three times on RS tours, and had to buy our passes each time. Some things of that type were provided on this tour: we were each given 4 metro tickets in Rome, and in Paris we each received a 2-day museum pass and either 4 or 6 single ride metro tickets.

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Day 16: To Switzerland! Early breakfast, then off to the train station. We met Richard in Levanto, and headed for Switzerland. This was yet another long bus day, but I don't think anyone minds them much. At least I haven't heard any grumbling about that. Dimitri's favorite lunch place on this leg of the journey was being renovated, so we stopped at an Autogrill near Milan. The food at the Autogrills varies wildly; sometimes it's pretty good, with lots of choices; other times, not so much. This one wasn't as good as some, but I did have a decent risotto. Stan's lasagna wasn't good. Oddly, at all the Autogrills at which we ate, the pasta was way overcooked. I thought that was illegal in Italy.

After about a 7 hour ride, through some amazing scenery, we made a quick stop in Innsbruck for people to change money. Switzerland is not in the EU, and still uses Swiss Francs as currency. Then back on the bus for the short ride to Stechelberg, at the head of the Lauterbrunnen Valley. We stayed at the Hotel Stechelberg, which seems to be a love it or hate it kind of place. Luckily, we love it! This is the one stop on the tour where some folks have to share bathrooms, and there is no elevator in the hotel. We were surprised to find our room had a private bath; honestly, I didn't know that any did. The last time we were here we shared a bathroom with several German (male) tourists, and it was fine. Some people, however, find bathroom sharing unacceptable. Our hosts met us with drinks and a fondue demonstration. Dinner was more fondue, and huge slabs of pork roast with carrots and green beans. The veggies were welcome, but we're back to having to pay for our own drinks.

We headed up to our room right after dinner; it's been a long day. I do think some folks navigated themselves over to the bar for some relaxation and conversation.

Day 17: Free day in the Alps. This was another "vacation" day, and I think everyone was ready for it. I know we were. And this was quite possibly my favorite day of the tour. Lots of options were suggested, including heading up Schilthorn (via combinations of train and cable cars,) hiking, or even going back to Innsbruck for some city life.

Stan and I chose a simple option. We walked a gently sloping path about miles to the village of Lauterbrunnen. The scenery was breathtaking; in addition to the mountains themselves, there were dozens of waterfalls, most fueled by the spring glacier melt. The weather was cool, and it rained just a bit, but we didn't care. It was so peaceful, so restful, and so beautiful. This was one of the few times when we went off on our own. About halfway down the valley, we detoured a bit to take in the Trummelbach Falls. Stan had visited them before, but I hadn't. I am mildly claustrophobic, and because of my lack of depth perception I sometimes have trouble on stairs. But Stan assured me I would have no problems. And I didn't, although I had to hang on to the handrails on both sides of the stairs going down. The falls are interesting; you can't see them from the outside; they actually corkscrew around inside the mountain. I did decide that I don't ever need to do that again, however.

Then it was on to Lauterbrunnen, where we found a great lunch at the Hotel Oberland. Stan had beef stroganoff and salad; I had wonderful käse spätzle, cheesy little dumplings. The wine and coffee were good, and Stan had some good ice cream for dessert.

We then sauntered back toward Stechelberg, on a path that ran alongside a rushing stream. Going back, the path is slightly uphill and about half way back Stan cut over to the road to catch a bus. I stayed on the path and enjoyed the scenery, which included cows, goats, sheep, and lots of wildflowers.

Stan wasn't at the hotel when I got there; ??? Turns out he was sitting so far back in the bus shelter that the driver didn't see him, and didn't stop. So he had to walk back anyway!

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This had turned out to be another 10 mile day, so we were glad to get back to the hotel and rest. Before dinner, we had Swiss musicians to entertain us. One played the alpenhorn, and the other played what they called a "Swiss organ," a simple accordion-like instrument. They played for quite a while, and the alpenhornist showed us how his instrument was made, and gave members of our group a chance to try to play it! It was both entertaining and informative.

After the entertainment, dinner was provided for us. We had good soup and salad, and bratwurst with "rösti," very good potatoes. Similar to what we call country fries, but not as greasy. Then back to the room for us. It has been a wonderful day, and tomorrow we're going to France!

Day 18: France! We had breakfast at our Swiss hotel, of course. This is one place where there was some grumbling about the breakfasts. On neither day was any fruit provided, nor were there any sweets. Lots of bread, cheese, eggs to boil, juice, and coffee, though.

Then to the bus, and off toward France. We had one more rest stop in Switzerland, where people tried to use up their Swiss francs, at least the change. Many banks will exchange the bills, but not the change. And our lunch stop was in France. We stopped at a kind of shopping center with a variety of eateries. Stan and I opted for Dimitri's favorite, a place called "Flunch." It's basically a very confusing cafeteria. Stan had roast ham with potatoes and vegetables; I put together an appetizer plate from the salad bar, with several kinds of cheese, some vegetables, and the best duck paté I have ever had. As soon as I took a taste of that paté, I said, "Oh, yes; we're in France!"

After lunch, Richard continued on to Beaune, our stop for just one night. Our hotel was the Hotel des Remparts, where Madame the proprietor greeted us with a heartfelt welcome speech. Our room was magnificent. Up a tiny winding stone staircase, but it was huge, had a separate sitting room, and the windows opened onto the flower-filled courtyard. When we collected our key, Madame whispered to Stan that we had the honeymoon suite!

After we had checked in and dumped our bags, Dimitri led us on an orientation tour of central Beaune, again making sure we would be able to find our way back to the hotel. Our tour ended at the Hotel Dieu, a wonderfully interpreted medieval charity hospital. It has been improved since we were there in 2011, and is well worth a visit. Then it was back to the hotel for a wine tasting with vintner Martine. We tasted a range of wines, from a fairly simple Chardonnay to an expensive and complex Burgundy, a pinot noir. She also handed out samples of cassis, a mildly alcoholic black currant syrup that is a regional specialty.

After the wine tasting (and she wouldn't let us leave until the bottles were empty!) we split up to find dinner. Stan and I ended up at Le Vintage in Place Carnot. I had a great salad with escargot and chunks of jambon persillage. It's basically seasoned ham in aspic, (Dimitri called it headcheese) and was wonderful. Stan had boeuf bourguignon, escargot, and ice cream topped with cassis. We tried some of the local wines, and had good coffee. It was a very nice meal, a bit of a splurge, though.

Then back to our lovely room; unfortunately, we're only in Beaune one night, and have an early departure tomorrow.

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Loving this report and now I really am interested in this RS tour. So thanks for sharing your experience in such detail.

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Day 19: On to Paris! Breakfast at the hotel; it was good, but a bit skimpy - no fruit, for instance. But the staff treated us like visiting royalty.

We loaded the bus, and were off to Paris. After one lengthy rest stop, we finally arrived. This is where we parted from our bus and Richard. He was a great addition to the tour, and we're going to miss him.

Our hotel was the Beaugency, a block off Rue Cler. Our room was small, but fine. There is a tiny elevator, as well, but the stairs are usually faster. There is also a guest computer (I've been forgetting to note which hotels have guest computers; I think all of them except maybe the Stechelberg had wi-fi.) We were on our own for lunch after a brief orientation. There are lots of cafés, street food stands, and other eateries on Rue Cler itself, which is where most of us ate. Stan and I had some delicious sausage and bread from a street vendor; we bought water from a bakery that had outdoor seating, so we could sit and eat.

After a quick lunch, the group gathered again for a Métro lesson. The Paris Métro is wonderful, but watch your wallet! We went as a group to the Latin quarter for a quick orientation and suggestions of where we might find dinner. Then to Ste Chapelle, Notre Dame, and the Deportation (Holocaust) Memorial. Ste Chapelle is another one of those must-see-to-believe kinds of places. The huge interior is almost completely covered with intricate stained glass windows. It is a marvel. Notre Dame is .. well, it's Notre Dame! For most people it's a "must see" Paris stop. There was a service going on while we were there, so we stuck to the outer ring of chapels and listened to some amazing music.

The Deportation Memorial is chilling. This is fairly new, and I don't think anyone in the group had seen it before. We got there late, but Dimitri charmed the staff so we could enter, but they rushed us through it. It is one of the most touching displays I have ever seen.

We were then set free for the evening; I think most people went to the Latin Quarter for dinner. We found a wonderful dinner at Taverne de la Huchette, on Rue de la Huchette. I had great duck confit, served with perfectly fried potatoes. Stan had boeuf bourguignon again. The friends who joined us had good chicken in cream sauce, served over pasta. And of course, wine, sparkling water, and coffee. Very good dinner.

An aside here: many people and guidebooks say, "Never eat at a restaurant where the staff stands outside and invites people in." Well. We have eaten at those place numerous times, and have had some great meals. We were mildly disappointed only once; that time the food was good, but it wasn't what we had been told was available. The Taverne de la Huchette was one where one of the staff grabbed us as we walked down the street, and showed us the menu. I knew I wanted some duck confit while we were in Paris, and there it was, in a bargain 3-course menú. Actually, the confit was an alternate choice, and I paid a €4 premium for it, but it was worth it.

We took the Métro back to our hotel, and headed upstairs for showers and rest. Another long but good day.

Day 20: More - much more - of Paris. Breakfast at hotel was okay; no meat, and a little (packaged) cheese available, and some fruit. The bread was good, as one would expect.

I had planned to skip the morning group activity, a bus tour of Paris, and run some errands instead, but Stan wanted me to go with him. Also, we knew the guide, Elisabeth van Hest, who had been the guide on our Best of Paris tour back in 2012. It was nice to see her again, but I still wish I had skipped the tour. It would be fine for someone who had never been to Paris, but we saw nothing new. The stop at Luxembourg Gardens was pleasant, and it was good to see Elisabeth again. But about halfway through the morning, Stan leaned over and whispered "You were right."

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Jane, I am sure we must have passed each other in the breakfast room of the Beaugency as we were staying there for 10 days during your tour time there. I was hoping to see Richard, our driver for GAS and christened a "Sartorial Splendor" by my daughter, forgetting he would leave after dropping you all off in Paris. Nice to know he hasn't changed! I did exchange notes through Amel with Dimitri, who was our guide for our first family tour in '08. We've been friends ever since. I have been reading your posts, waiting for you to get to Paris, as I figured the timing was about right for your tour being in Paris. I can't imagine how much fun it must be to have both these wonderful men for a tour and nice to hear you are enjoying your repeat tour.

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Andi, I wish you had left me a message! What fun! We met up with some other Forum people in Haarlem before the tour, and had a great evening drinking beer and swapping stories. Maybe next time...

And I love the term "Sartorial splendor." One of our tour mates, a single male, was also a snappy dresser (he did not travel light), but his American tastes meant he was much more subdued. No green pants and pointy toed shoes for him!

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The bus tour dropped us off at the Tuilerie, and we walked to the Louvre from there. There's a new rule banning guided tours at the Louvre, so we lost both Elisabeth and Dimitri there. Stan and I and a couple of friends stayed on for a few hours. Stan and I focused on the Etruscan room and Italian art; our friends did the big three: Mona Lisa, the Winged Victory, and the Venus di Milo. We walked back to our hotel from the Louvre. Stan took a nap, while I ran some errands.

That evening was our "last supper" with the group. We had a very good meal at La Terrasse du Settieme, an easy walk from the hotel. I had excellent escargot and some very good salmon. Stan also had the snails, but I think he had steak as his main. Since it was our last meal, wine was included. Toasts were made, of course, and we lingered over our meal.

Finally, Dimitri called us together, and said "Follow me." We all went to the Champ du Mars, and settled in an empty area in sight of the Eiffel Tower. Dimitri then carefully recapped our entire trip, from our very first get together in Haarlem, with our proto-grump complaining about the coffee, through every day, every excursion, every local guide. He also asked each one of us to tell his or her feelings about the tour, what our sense of the whole experience had been. Dimitri seemed to be taking his time, which surprised me, because we were supposed to be done by 9:30, and people were pretty tired. Then 10:00 came and... magic! The Eiffel Tower lit up, lights twinkling as Dimitri broke out the champagne. Lots of toasts, lots of hugs. A nice way to end the evening and the tour.

Day 21: Farewells. Technically the tour was over right after breakfast, but most people were staying on a day or more. I'm going to go ahead and include our own activities for the day, because they fit the mood of the tour, and because our tour tag-alongs spent much of the day with us.

After breakfast Stan and I just took a quiet walk through the neighborhood, enjoying the relative quiet of Paris on a Saturday morning. We then returned to the hotel to pick up our friends, and headed back to Rue Cler for a quick, light lunch. For me it was quiche at a corner bakery; I think everyone else had sandwiches. Then our main activity of the day: the Picasso Museum. What a pleasure that was. I am a fan of Picasso the artist, not so much of Picasso the man, and the museum covered his work from a very young age to work he did just before he died. Lots of explanations in English, too. And as a special treat, there was a special exhibit on Guernica. No, the painting wasn't there, but there were two floors of background, the bombing of the village, the effect of that on Picasso, the first showing of the painting, and the legacy of the painting. Wonderful.

Then we went back to the hotel; we parted from our friends there. We went up to pack, since we're leaving after breakfast tomorrow. Then we headed out again, just the two of us. We made reservations for dinner at a local café, and Stan explored on his own while I went to church.

Dinner was, once again, excellent. We ate at Le Roussillon, on rue de Grenelle just off Rue Cler. We had snails again; they weren't as good as those we had had the night before, but they were better than the ones we had had in Beaune. I had poulet fermier - free range chicken, and Stan had sea bass. Both were very good. We decided to forgo coffee, and instead have it at an outdoor café, which turned out to be not a good decision. Saturday night, every place was packed, and places did not want to seat us because we were not going to eat. We did finally get one place (Café du Marché) to seat us, but the service was indifferent even though Stan did order a dessert.

But no matter. It was our last night in Paris, and we had a wonderful time. Back to the hotel for a farewell glass of wine in our own room. We're leaving for the Netherlands tomorrow on the Thalys.

Posted by
4010 posts

I plan to post some final impressions later, but I wanted to share a link to the trip report I did on our visit to Leiden, in the Netherlands. Actually, there are two links, because I forgot about continuing on in one thread. The first one is https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/trip-reports/lovely-leiden-with-a-brief-stop-in-den-haag

The second is https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/trip-reports/lovely-leiden-part-2

Posted by
272 posts

Jane, we must be sisters who were separated at birth. I am the biggest Michaelangelo nerd that ever lived. Your description of "David" in Florence is perfect. David is magnificent. Words cannot describe him. Pictures don't do him justice. The sculpture is perfection!

We had friends who asked us to join them on the best of Italy tour. We quickly agreed. They had already picked the date, which worked for us. After looking at the schedule I realized that I would see "David" on my 60th birthday. It was the best birthday I've ever had. I also flipped out at the Sistine chapel and the "Pieta". I'm glad I'm not the only one that gets emotional over beautiful artwork.

My husband and I have taken a total of 5 RS tours now. That first trip to Italy will always be at the top of my list and Michaelangelo is the reason why.
I loved your report. Thanks for all your work to help all of us live through you.

Posted by
4010 posts

Janet, I learned years ago that viewing the original of an artwork is worlds apart from viewing a reproduction. Years ago, in Kraków, I had the opportunity to see da Vinci's "Girl with an Ermine," a picture I had never thought much of. Well, I was absolutely gobsmacked. The David blew me away, and although I've now seen it several times, it never disappoints. (But I do regret that I will never again get to see it for the first time.) The Michaelangelo's Pieta, likewise. And this year, I had a chance to see the original of a painting I have not only not liked, I actively disliked it - Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring. It's always troubled me that I didn't like it, because I admire Vermeer's work, and think the Kitchen Maid may be the most wonderful painting ever. So we took a day trip to den Haag earlier this month, and I saw the Pearl Earring painting live, and in person. Wow. The reproductions do not even come close to capturing the spirit of the painting.

So keep traveling, and keep viewing original art. It's good for your soul. And thanks for your kind words.

Posted by
4010 posts

Thanks to all of you for your comments and encouragement. I've enjoyed writing this report more than I thought I would. It was fun reliving the tour, even though we've only been home for about two weeks.

What would I have done differently? Not much, really. I do wish I had boned up on my German before we went. We spent time in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, and German is the worst of all the languages I'm acquainted with. This is just me, by the way; I'm a language junkie. I do think it important that anyone who visits a foreign country should know the courtesy words: please, thank you, hello, good-bye, where's the toilet...

I also wish we had spent more time with more of the people on our tour. I think we shared a table at mealtime with everyone at least once, and spent some bus time chatting with most of the folks, but we tended to spend most of our time with one couple who asked to hang out with us. They were nice and interesting, but I wonder if some of the other people thought we were drawing back. I hope not.

I do recommend this tour, but if you're considering it please pay attention to how active it is and how long it is. This is a three week marathon. There is a fair amount of free time, but a number of days are packed from dawn to bedtime. And there are some days that are downright brutal. So assess your own fitness level, and know that it is possible, even occasionally encouraged, to skip some of the scheduled activities. It's better to miss something than to get burned out.

Final advice: try eating something new. You may find out you love escargot and jambon persillage. (But stay away from andouiette. I speak from experience.)

What's next for us? Next spring we're joining our travel group friend Kim and her husband on the Paris and the Heart of France tour. Stan and I are thinking of adding on a second tour: Villages of Eastern France? Basque Country? Back to Italy? We'll see.

I'm sure I'll think of other things later, but this is it for now, unless someone has any questions.

Jane

Posted by
2499 posts

"(But I do regret that I will never again get to see it for the first time.)"

So true and it's making me sad all over again. There are 5-6 works of art that I've walked into a room and my knees nearly buckled when I saw them. On a couple of occasions I've had to sit down or walk away for a few minutes. This summer, The Girl With the Pearl Earing affected me that way. I could hardly stand to look at it at first from across the room and I needed to dab my eyes a few times when I could finally stand to move closer.

We've seen most of the few Vermeers over the years helped along by finding ourselves in a London several years ago when the National Gallery had a special Vermeer exhibit. But last month, the Girl brought me to a halt.

What I'd like to do is get back to my favorite paintings and sculpture to test this sentiment you bring up Jane. "(But I do regret that I will never again get to see it for the first time.)"

Posted by
112 posts

Great report. We did this tour in 2016 and it is a marathon. I didn’t feel like any one day was too difficult but it is 19 early mornings. We were often having so much fun we were out late. After the tour ended we had 3 relaxing days in Paris and then to Bruges. We have done several RS tours that were 14 days and the pace is similar, but didn’t seem quite as tiring. Would I eliminate any of it—no way. And if you gave me a pass to do again, I’d jump on it. This year it’s Scandinavia and Village Italy.

My react to my first time in the Van Gough Museum—tears of joy. I also fell in love with Vermeer that year. I was surprised at how much more moving sculptures are in person. I could go to the Borghese and the Medici Chapel weekly if not daily.

If you do the Eastern France tour, consider the fall. You get to experience the wine harvest.

Posted by
4010 posts

Patty, that sounds wonderful, but Kim wants to go in the spring. However, Stan and I were discussing our options at dinner, and he's interested in following the Heart of France tour with the Basque Country. Sounds good to me! Of course, we'll have to wait until the new tours come out and see what we can manage. We have a lot going on here at home, and it's hard to be away more than about 3 weeks.

Posted by
4212 posts

Jane, I just stumbled on this report and enjoyed it so much. What a lot of time and work you put into writing it, though it must have been fun too. And I'm exhausted just reading about some of your days.

Sorry I missed the gathering in Haarlem, we were there several days after you and Mona and others. We experienced King's Day, with the Grote Markt filled with carnival rides. I have some bizarre pictures of the big church surrounded by neon and such. And Tripkey proved to be an illusion for us, and others -- none available when and where promised.

I'm going on my first RS tour -- Venice/Florence/Rome -- in October and hoping it won't be quite as fast-paced as yours. But I'm adding several days on my own at the start and end, so I can spread out some of the sightseeing across more time. Thanks again for your entertaining and informative report! Dick

Posted by
4010 posts

Thanks, Dick! We were concerned about the TripKey, because some folks had posted here about their not being available. But we had no trouble picking them up or returning them, and were very glad we had them. It cut out a lot of minor stress taking trains and buses.

You'll love your VFR tour; we haven't taken that one, but we've taken other RS tours that go to those places. And you'll get to go to Cecilia's winery near Orvieto!

Have a great time, and let us know how you liked the tour.