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Italy trip report - just back

I just got back from a wonderful three-week trip to Italy. This was a re-do of a trip that was supposed to take place in April of 2020. My husband and I traveled with another couple, dear friends for over 40 years. Here is my trip report. It is long, so I will break it into segments.

COVID TESTS: To travel to Italy, we had to have negative covid tests, with the sample drawn no sooner than 72 hours prior to our arrival in Italy. At my doctor for something routine two days before the flight, I was required to have a rapid PCR covid test. They gave me a print out of my negative result, and this saved my having to figure out where to test. My husband found a place to get a free PCR test with results guaranteed to be emailed within 24 hours but he had to do it one day before the flight, as the facility was closed the prior day. With the 24 hour result time, he’d have his results at least 7 hours before flight time. When we arrived at O’Hare, he still hadn’t gotten the email. He called and learned that he’d tested negative but the State of WI was slow that day with the email verifications. We didn’t want to take the chance that the email would arrive on time for our flight, so he went down to the shuttle bus center, where rapid tests were being done for $120. We checked into the flight and were asked to show our passports and vaccination cards. We were asked if we had done covid tests and gotten negative results and said “yes,” then started to hand over the forms, but the agent waived us off, indicating he didn’t need to see them. What?? My husband’s original test results were finally emailed to him 56 hours after he was tested!

FLIGHTS TO ITALY: Our airline was Delta and the itinerary was ORD-AMS-FCO. We’d booked this trip for October 20 but about 2 months in advance, Delta moved us to a flight at the same departure time on October 19, with no email to notify us. I just happened to spot it during a routine check of my flight itinerary to see if any of the times had been tweaked. I clicked on the “accept change” button and booked an extra night in our first hotel, in Rome. The Oct. 20 flight apparently had been cancelled. It’s hard to believe the Oct. 19 flight wasn’t cancelled as well, given the smattering of people on board. In our main cabin section, there were only about 20 passengers. The section behind ours had even fewer. The flight attendants encouraged everyone to move around and claim a row to himself/herself. This was a completely peaceful flight as the lights were dimmed and everyone was stretched out sleeping in a three-row or four- row sections with arm rests lifted. At AMS we had about a half hour in line to go through passport control. The AMS to FCO flight was full. All flights were on time and we arrived in Rome at 11 a.m. on Oct. 20.

ROME HOTEL: We checked into our hotel, The Regency, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel. This was a last minute booking. Our original Rome hotel had been Villa Morgagni, but when we tried to confirm our reservation a week in advance of the trip, and got no reply to our emails and no answer when calling, we did some investigation and learned that the hotel had been closed since January. This despite the fact that third party booking sites were still taking reservations for it! Our substitute hotel was brand new and really chic and lovely, a boutique hotel in a great location, about an 8 minute walk to the Borghese Gallery and Museum.

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ROME ACTIVITIES: Our method of avoiding jet lag is to pretend we haven’t missed a night of sleep and stay active and outdoors on arrival day, trying to make it as close as possible to a regular bedtime. It was especially easy this time because the quiet, comfortable flight had allowed for napping. On our first afternoon and evening, we walked all over. The health app on my phone said we logged 8.7 miles this day, which of course included walking at the airports, AMS and FCO. The city had bigger crowds than I had anticipated. Lots of people at Trevi Fountain, for example. We had cocktails outdoors at sunset on the top of the Pantheon Hotel with amazing rooftop views, and enjoyed a wonderful dinner at a restaurant called Hostaria Romana. It’s a popular place for residents, so reservations are needed there and we had made one. On our second day in Rome, we again walked all over the city, another 19,000 steps, ending our tourist activities with a 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. reservation at the Borghese, a private guided tour by Francesca Caruso. She is fabulous! This was our first time at the Borghese. Francesca’s expertise, eloquence, and warm, engaging personality made it an excellent experience. We’d be visiting Rome again for two nights at the end of the trip, but in the morning, we were off to Pompeii and Sorrento!

POMPEII: The original plan had been to get from Rome to Sorrento by train, but when we decided to visit Pompeii en route, we treated ourselves to a car transport. We hired Gaetano Manfredi to give us a 2.5 hour tour of Pompeii and he arranged the driver who picked us up at our Rome hotel, kept our bags securely locked in his van while we were touring Pompeii, then delivered us to our hotel in Sorrento. Gaetano was wonderful. My husband and I had never been to Pompeii before. Our friends had been one time, but they said the tour they got this time was exceptional in comparison to their prior tour, covering far more ground and providing much more detailed information. We highly recommend Gaetano as a guide for Pompeii! His father used to be a licensed guide there. His son became a licensed guide in Feb. of 2020, right before covid shut things down, but recently was finally able to start leading tours too. The forecast for Pompeii on this day was a 90% chance of steady rain, some heavy. Gaetano provided us with sturdy umbrellas but we only needed them for about 20 minutes of light rain. After the tour, we had a good lunch in the café right across the street from the entrance gate. We loved our driver, who gave us a scenic stop for photos on the way to Sorrento, and who played great music on his radio, singing along in a beautiful voice at times.

SORRENTO HOTEL: Our hotel in Sorrento, for a three night stay, was the Antiche Mura, right in city center. We loved this hotel and its location. Our rooms had small balconies with tea tables on them. The hotel has a lovely included breakfast, served in a beautiful breakfast room, or you can opt to eat outdoors on the terrace, surrounded by fruit trees. There is a large outdoor pool patio area with a swimming pool, tables and chairs, sun beds, a bar serving beverages and snacks, all amid more fruit trees. However, we didn’t spend much time by the pool because the weather was cool. The bartender at this hotel, Daniele, was fabulous, friendly and funny. He was poolside during the day and in the lobby bar once the outdoor bar closed. We enjoyed our interactions with him and considered him our good friend by the time we checked out.

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CAPRI: On our first full day in Sorrento, we day tripped to Capri, having booked a Rick Steves Shared Tour through Mondo Guides. This was a bargain at 100 Euro per person. A van picked us up right at our hotel to deliver us to the port. Our boat could have had as many as 12 people aboard, but it was the four of us, who sat in the stern, and a fun group of five young people who took the seating in the bow. This was a much more fun way to get to Capri than taking a large ferry. Our captain served drinks and snacks. He gave us a great boat tour around the island. He stopped at the Blue Grotto for anyone who wanted to pay 15 € to climb down into one of the small rowboats for a tour inside. A couple people on our boat did this but we didn’t. After that, the captain found a place to float for a bit, so that anyone who wanted to swim could do so. (Some of the young people did this but we didn’t). Then we were dropped off and had four free hours to explore the island on our own. We had to walk up 60 steps from the harbor and were in a small square. We had intended to use the funicular to get up to the town of Capri, but in the square, we had the opportunity to hire a driver/guide for our four hour afternoon. There are a lot of white cabs on the island seeking this business, but ours was a truly unique cab experience. We were in a bright red convertible, a 1960 Fiat President, with two rows of seats behind the driver, whose name was Paolo. He was wonderful, driving us all over the island, including to the Roman ruins that aren’t often visited by day trippers. He gave us as much time in the towns of Capri and Anacapri as we wanted, took photos of us, and told us the history of the things we were seeing. Paolo is an older man who calls it a day each day at 3:00, so when it was 3:00, we met up with his son, who finished our tour by taking us back down to the port. Throughout the day, as we zipped around the island in our vintage red convertible, we saw the folks in the white cabs looking at us with envy! Our day on Capri was a delight!

NAPLES: On our second full day in Sorrento, we day tripped to Naples. We got there by train from Sorrento. It took about an hour and a half. This is the Circumvesuviana train, which gets a bad rap (crowded, risk of being pickpocketed, etc.). Taking it on a Sunday morning, from Sorrento to Naples, was easy. The train was almost empty. On arrival in Naples, we walked to the Naples Archeological Museum. We spent a couple hours in there, then went to get pizza for lunch. At 3:00, we met up with a city guide. Each day at 3:00, Mondo Guides has a Rick Steves Shared Tour—a 3 hour city walk of Naples, for 25€ per person. The tour needs a minimum of 6 people to operate. We were the only four who signed up but we had contacted the company a couple days in advance and offered to cover the fee of the two missing people, and when guests do that, the tour runs. Our tour guide, Francesco, was wonderful. He was an art and history major in college but went on to become a lawyer to please his father. A few years ago, he gave up that career in order to follow his heart. He loves the city of Naples and its beautiful history and loves sharing it with people. This was the absolute best way for us to see the highlights of Naples! We used a driver to get back to Sorrento at the end of our tour because we weren’t comfortable taking the Circumvesuviana at night.

SORRENTO: We didn’t do much in Sorrento itself. As you can see from what I’ve written, Sorrento was our base for day trips to Pompeii, Capri and Naples. On our final day in Sorrento, we did slow it down, just strolled around the city, browsed in the cute shops on the quaint, narrow street that admittedly is very touristy. We had three great restaurant experiences in Sorrento. Our restaurants for dinner on our three nights were Osteria Buonconvento, Taverna dell’800, and Ristorante Zi’ntonio. Warm, attentive service and excellent food at all three!

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AMALFI COAST RENTAL HOME: Next we had a five night stay at a home located between Minori and Atrani on the Amalfi coast. Originally, for our trip in 2020, I booked this home on VRBO. When that trip had to be cancelled, VRBO refunded the fee and I then directly communicated with the owner to re-schedule for another time. I wanted to work with him directly because I assumed we might be moving our date more than once and I was concerned about how much we might incur in VRBO fees with repeated cancelling and re-booking. The owner was a very nice man and I felt completely comfortable booking with him directly and he expressed the same level of comfort with us. We wired a fully refundable deposit to him and picked our new dates, in April of 2021. In December of 2020, we moved the dates once more to October of 2021. The home was beautiful and we loved our stay here. It was situated 50 zig-zagging stair steps above the main Amalfi coast road. We had two bedrooms and two bathrooms, a small kitchen, and outdoor terraces on 3 different levels with tables for dining and comfortable chairs for lounging, all while enjoying the fabulous view of the coastline! Our home was well stocked with a welcome basket of food. There was a bus stop right down at street level, but we were not able to board the bus there without a ticket. We did use the bus by walking to the stop about 15 minutes away, where tickets could be bought at a tobacco shop. But we also just walked a lot! It took 20 minutes to walk to Minori and 25 to walk to Amalfi. You have to hug the shoulder of the road on the seaside while walking. Traffic on this very winding road is heavy and moves at a dangerous speed, with many blind corners, and the “shoulder” of the road is only a foot or so wide in many places. You have to pay attention and walk with care!

AMALFI COAST ACTIVITIES: During our four full days in our rental home, we visited Minori, Amalfi, Positano (got there by ferry from Amalfi), Maori, and Ravello. We were not able to visit Atrani because they were filming a movie in town and all the entrances were blocked. For Ravello, which is high up the cliff instead of situated seaside like the other towns, my husband and I took the bus, while our travel companions braved the walk, trekking up hundreds of stone stairs. They said it was a fabulous uphill hike! Of all the towns, we loved Ravello best. It was almost devoid of tourists. The two villas there, Villa Cimbrone and Villa Rufolo were both beautiful—really not to be missed. Our best meal of the trip was at a restaurant in Minori, called il Giardinelli. Between walking and taking the bus, plus the one ferry ride, we got everywhere we wanted to go. Positano is the favorite of many tourists but unless you want to engage in high-price shopping or dining, there is not much to do there.

RENTAL CAR TO TUSCANY: After checking out of our rental home, we were taken by the owner’s private driver to downtown Salerno, to pick up our Avis rental car. We then had a five hour drive up to Tuscany. There was quite a bit of traffic on the road but we had no issues with the drive.

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AGRITURISMO STAY IN TUSCANY: The next part of our trip was a seven night stay at Agriturismo Cretaiole near Pienza. For my husband and myself, this was a return stay. We had been there in June of 2017 and had been wanting to return ever since. The owner, 81-year-old Lucciano Moricianni, and his family live on their farm in Pienza, a five minute drive away. Cretaiole is a second farm property Luciano bought in the 1980s when the Italian government was offering tax incentives for farmers to open their homes for tourist stays. Cretaiole is a centuries-old property, beautifully renovated, with seven apartments and a shared veranda room. We had a beautiful three bedroom apartment with a large kitchen/living room that included a huge farm table, comfortable furnishings, and a large open fireplace, perfect for relaxing in the evening while sipping the wonderful house wine and nibbling on the sausage and pecorino cheese, all provided to us in our bountiful welcome basket. Our week at Cretaiole involved several group activities with the other guests. These included a Brunello winery tour and tasting with lunch, a hike in the countryside with the owner’s son, Carlo, a tour of the family’s working farm and a lunch there with product tastings, a tour of an ancient archeological site discovered on the family’s property a couple decades ago, an olive oil tasting lesson, a pici pasta class where all the guests gathered to hand roll the pasta, followed by a Tuscan feast with salads and grilled meats to accompany the pasta. On our own, we visited the towns of Pienza, Montalcino, Montepulciano, Cortona, Orvieto, San Quirico, and some smaller towns like Castlemuzio, Bagno Vignoni, Sant’Angelo in Colle, Montechiello. When we arrived on Oct. 30, we were told that all the towns in the area where we might try to have dinner—Pienza, Montalcino, Montepulciano for example--were packed with people. They were full of Italians, not tourists. It was the start of a three day holiday weekend. All Saints Day is important in Tuscany! We were glad to have a kitchen because it would not have been possible to eat in any nearby town on Saturday, Sunday or even Monday night, we were told. Our concierge at the agriturismo told us restaurants were fully booked and it might be impossible to even find a place to park in town. So Saturday, Sunday and Monday were quiet days for us. By Tuesday we were ready to explore some towns, and we found that it was now definitely off season! We had the towns to ourselves, with the ability to find parking places and with few tourists in site, not a lot of locals in sight either. While this created a unique experience to see the towns, there was a downside in that most shops and many restaurants were closed. Our favorite restaurant meal while in Tuscany was enjoyed at Osteria del Teatro in Cortona. We enjoyed being in Tuscany when the weather was cool, the olives were being harvested, and fall colors were just starting to peak. It was a relaxing week. We loved our time spent with the family who own the property, especially Niccolo, the son of Carlo, who just graduated from a hospitality school in Switzerland and is doing his internship by taking care of the agriturismo guests.

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BACK TO ROME: After our week at Cretaiole, we drove our rental car back to Rome, returning it at the airport so we didn’t have to drive into the city, and were picked up by a car sent by our final hotel, Hotel Santa Maria in Trastevere. We already had our negative covid test results in hand, for our flight in two days, having taken care of this the prior day at a pharmacy in Montepulciano. Hotel Santa Maria was a wonderful hotel. It has only about 22 rooms, all situated around a lovely center courtyard that is full of tea tables and orange trees. The staff members were wonderful. There is a delightful happy hour each afternoon, and a beautiful breakfast buffet each morning. Our rooms were spacious and comfortable. We heard no street noise even though Trastevere is a bustling area of the city with much restaurant and bar nightlife. We met up with Francesca Caruso at 3:30 p.m. on our arrival day back in Rome. She spent three hours with us, giving us a tour of San Clemente, then a short highlights tour of the Capitoline Museum, then walking us through the Jewish Ghetto and teaching us the poignant history of that district. It was fun to spend more time with Francesca, two and a half weeks after she’d given us a tour of the Borghese gallery. I consider her my friend in Rome now. Can’t say enough good things about her! The next day, our final full day of this trip was a low key one. We packed our bags, checked into our flights, attended church at Santa Maria in Trastevere, strolled around the neighborhood, ate one last gelato, dined casually.

FLIGHT HOME: A car picked us up at the hotel at 8:30 a.m., and by 10 a.m. we were at our gate at Fiumicino airport waiting for our direct flight to the US (Atlanta). The health screening/check-in and security clearance process went very smoothly for us. I know we got lucky. International travelers should definitely plan for three hours at the airport before flight time, to be sure they aren’t going to miss a flight while stuck in a long line.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Late October was a great time to be on the Amalfi Coast. The ferries were running, the weather was warm and sunny, crowds were down but shops and restaurants were still open. Early November saw beautiful weather in Tuscany. Usually a light jacket was all we needed. However, it was a little quiet. The towns we visited would have been a little more lively if we’d been there one week earlier. I suspect many shop and restaurant owners consider All Saints Day to be the end of the season, and then they’re ready to board up. Everywhere we went in Italy, we felt safe from covid. We were required to be fully vaccinated and three of us had even gotten booster shots. We had to show our covid vaccination cards perhaps ten times on the trip, usually just for major sites like museums, but sometimes also for restaurants and churches. Masks were required in indoor places and everyone complied. Outside, few people wore masks. We stayed in some beautiful places, met many warm and wonderful people, enjoyed lots of fabulous wine and food, and feel that although we had to wait a year and a half to take this trip, it was worth the wait!

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Thank you for sharing your trip with us, Vickie! Glad you had a wonderful time!

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Great trip report! Thanks for sharing.

Positano is the favorite of many tourists but unless you want to
engage in high-price shopping or dining, there is not much to do
there.

A friend and I spent 4 days in Nocelle, above Positano. We spent little time in Positano, but we did hire a boat and captain there for a twilight cruise along the coast to a small fishing town where we had dinner. We returned to Positano after dark. It was pretty cool to see the town lit up at night from the sea.

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Enjoyed reading this. We left Rome on Oct 30, and our host told us he had 10 inquiries, all for that weekend, all from Italians searching for rooms for the holiday weekend. Everybody was celebrating!

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Thanks so much for the wonderfully detailed report! And I totally agree about Positano. It was nice to see the Amalfi Coast but otherwise the rest of Italy has so much more to offer as far as sights and experiences IMO.